Leonard Thomas: Lions must not fail at home again
Lions coach must show his worth by engineering a win without two big names
Bernd Stange wants to make history by masterminding Singapore's first qualification for the Asian Cup and a win tonight over Afghanistan will be a huge shot in the arm in the quest to reach the tournament in 2019.
This is his big moment.
We will never know how close the Singapore coach (far right) actually came to ending his stint with the Lions last month when his contract expired.
I wonder if he feared the worst the moment the referee blew the whistle to confirm Singapore's loss to Malaysia, and first-round exit from the AFF Suzuki Cup last November.
Stange raised eyebrows when he dropped senior players soon after he took the reins in May, 2013. There were many whispers over his methods at training sessions and, after the Suzuki Cup debacle on home soil last year, the calls for his head rang loud.
The Lions' stunning 0-0 draw with Japan in their World Cup/Asian Cup Group E qualifier in Saitama in June almost certainly was the reason the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) extended his stay to April next year.
Tonight's match at the National Stadium is a must-win game for the home side and it is hardly a straightforward task, even with the political situation in Afghanistan.
The visitors are seven positions better off than the Lions by Fifa's rankings and their squad are peppered with professionals plying their trade in Europe's lower leagues.
Coach Slaven Skeledzic is a Bosnian-born German who will know that Stange's team will be missing midfield stars Hariss Harun and Safuwan Baharudin through suspension.
Tonight is the stage where the Lions' 67-year-old coach shows off his considerable credentials with a tactical plan that makes up for the loss of the country's two best players, and produces a win.
If he chooses to start him, as seems likely, the coach needs to convince Shahril Ishak to produce a match-winning performance after consigning the national skipper to the bench over the last few months.
He may have felt that the player's weekly football staple in the second-tier Malaysian Premier League was not good enough, or that at age 31, the forward's ability to last the pace and physical nature of international football had diminished.
But the experience of the captain could prove decisive in swinging the balance in Singapore's favour.
When The New Paper first reported last week that both midfield stars would be missing, right through to yesterday, Stange has not used the two suspensions as a possible excuse, even going as far as to say his team still had it in them to beat the Afghans.
There has been no pouting or hand wringing, instead, his message to his players is that they are good enough and he trusts them to do their jobs and come away with a win.
The positives vibe of Stange has been clever and impressive, but it will count for nothing if his men fail to collect three points in their first home match of the campaign.
There will be many nervous souls in the Singapore camp if Zulfahmi Arifin starts in the heart of midfield, because they remain unconvinced that the 24-year-old's easy style on a football pitch is good enough.
But, at his best, Zul's left foot is a considerable weapon. His national coach has consistently talked about the player's creative ability, Stange will have specific instructions for him and Zul can repay the faith tonight.
The Lions' Suzuki Cup campaign last year was meant to be a special christening for the country's new football colosseum, but Singapore fans suffered mightily when the defending champions failed to even make it out of the opening group stage.
The Singapore Under-23s targeted a historic football gold at the South-east Asia Games in June on home soil, it was an exercise of wool over the eyes as Aide Iskandar's team were never good enough and were deservedly dumped out in the first round. As national teams' boss, Stange shared in the responsibility of that failure.
This qualifying campaign has raised some cheer and there is hope it could turn into a raucous celebration by the end of the Lions' final group game, against the Afghans in Iran on March 29, 2016.
Tonight, Stange's walk to redemption continues in front of the Lions' own fans for the first time and he dare not fail.