Tourney over, but the work has just begun
The Lions had a creditable campaign under Fandi, but need more striking options, and possibly foreign talent, to go further
Singapore's Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup campaign ended in the group stage for the third consecutive edition on Sunday.
The New Paper looks at four key takeaways for the Lions.
In most previous campaigns, failure to reach the knockout stages would automatically be deemed a disaster, but this time around, the barometer of success is not that clear.
Going 16 months without a win, until a 3-2 friendly victory over Maldives in March, tends to have that effect on expectations.
In 2014, under Bernd Stange, the Lions won one of their three Suzuki Cup group games, all played on home soil.
Two years later, under V. Sundram Moorthy, the team registered a solitary draw from their three matches in the Philippines.
Interim national coach Fandi Ahmad, meanwhile, finished his maiden campaign with two wins and two losses.
With the bar having dropped so low in the last two years, what’s harder to quantify is whether the Lions have improved enough.
Based just on results, that represents progress. Just going into their final match against Thailand with the possibility, albeit an unlikely one, of making the semi-final was cause for optimism.
A battling defeat at the Rajamangala Stadium against the back-to-back Suzuki Cup champions would not have done much to dampen the understated optimism that Fandi has fostered.
But the meek performance in the comprehensive 3-0 defeat by a Thai team missing their four best players has unwittingly become the asterisk to any assessment.
Yes, by all measures - matches won, goals scored, the brand of football played - this campaign was better than the last two.
A foreign injection could be a good boost, if done judiciously and sparinglyTNP journalist Dilenjit Singh
But, with the bar having dropped so low in the last two years, what's harder to quantify is whether the Lions have improved enough.
The six-month tenure of Fandi is effectively over and now the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) will have to decide who should be given the role of Lions coach permanently.
The 56-year-old's record in friendlies reads one draw and three wins, with seven goals scored and two conceded.
In tournament action, it's two wins and two losses with seven goals scored and five against.
Statistics aside, Fandi has resurrected belief from a previously listless team, who clearly seem to respond to his managerial style.
The dismal results at age-group level suggests that whoever takes up the job permanently will largely have to work with the crop of players they inherit, so motivational skills and making the best of what they've got should be key criteria for the FAS.
Is that man Fandi, or do they want him to return to his day job as head coach of youth to help unclog the development pipeline?
WHERE ARE THE ATTACKING OPTIONS?
After the loss to Thailand, Fandi said: "We have a shortage of attackers. It is not easy and we must make do with what we have."
So, what are Singapore's attacking options?
Up front, Ikhsan Fandi has established himself as Singapore's first-choice striker, earning praise from Philippines coach Sven-Goran Eriksson and former Thailand midfielder Therdsak Chaiman.
After failing to score in his first two matches, Ikhsan bagged a brace in the 6-1 win over Timor-Leste and, despite minimal service, the 19-year-old twice got off good shots to trouble Thailand goalkeeper Chatchai Budprom four days later.
But there is a worrying paucity of options beyond him.
The Singapore Premier League's (SPL) two highest local scorers last season, Khairul Amri and Shahril Ishak, are 33 and 34 respectively.
Other options include the 27-year-old Khairul Nizam, who has yet to score for the Lions and Sahil Suhaimi, 26, who has struggled to kick on after his breakthrough season with the Young Lions in 2014.
In the attacking roles behind the striker, there are at least more candidates to challenge Gabriel Quak and Faris Ramli.
The SPL's Young Player of the Year Adam Swandi, who perhaps surprisingly played only 13 minutes in the tournament, will be expected to play a bigger role going forward.
Iqbal Hussain played even fewer minutes but he offers a raw, unpredictable option.
Then there is the pace of Zulfadhmi Suzliman, who just missed on selection, and Shawal Anuar, a late bloomer who was making inroads into the national team before an anterior cruciate ligament injury in July.
For only the second time since 2002, the Lions entered the Suzuki Cup without any foreign-born players - something that sets them apart from most of their regional rivals.
The last foreign-born player to be naturalised was Qiu Li in 2010. However, the FAS said in September that it planned on resurrecting the Foreign Talent Scheme.
Considering the small catchment area and the lack of local talent coming through, a foreign injection could be a good boost, if done judiciously and sparingly.
The obvious candidate is South Korean Song Ui Young, who last month rejected a three-year deal worth more than US$20,000 (S$27,500) a month from Indonesian side Persija Jakarta in hopes of playing for Singapore, where he has plied his trade for seven years.
The 25-year-old's stance, as well as the prospect of a midfield featuring him and Hariss Harun, make naturalisation an intriguing option.