National football coach Stange confident of Suzuki Cup defence
The players have put in the hard work.
Now, they need to rediscover that winning feeling.
With just over a month to the AFF Suzuki Cup, national team coach Bernd Stange believes his Lions are shaping up nicely to defend the title they won two years ago.
Yesterday, the 66-year-old German named a 21-man squad that will play two away friendly matches against Hong Kong on Friday and Macau (Oct 14).
While Hong Kong and Macau, ranked 164th and 186th in the world respectively, are not the most illustrious of opponents, Stange explained he wanted his 149th-placed charges to gain confidence from the outings.
"We are getting closer to the final stage of our preparations for Suzuki Cup," Stange told The New Paper before a training session at Yishun Stadium last night.
"I believe we have a promising young national team, with players we have been building up for the last 15 months.
"Through an extremely tough run (during a July training camp) in Austria, a match against Juventus (in August), and then the Asian Games (last month), we have played a lot of high-quality matches.
"Now, we need matches against the likes of Hong Kong and Macau so that our players, especially our youngsters, can gain confidence and match experience.
"We have many young players who are promising but lack the exposure. But I'm quite confident they can do it in the next few games."
Following the Hong Kong and Macau games, the coach added, are tougher fixtures against Bahrain (Nov 7) and yet-to-be-confirmed opponents on Nov 17.
Since he took over the reins in May last year, Stange has led the side through 12 Fifa "A" international matches.
Although they won half of those games, most were against inferior opposition, and the only result of note was a shock 2-1 win over Syria in an Asian Cup qualifier almost a year ago.
Singapore, co-hosts of the Suzuki Cup, have been drawn in a tough Group B, where they will face three-time winners Thailand, arch-rivals Malaysia and the winners of the qualifying tournament, which may well be an unpredictable Myanmar side led by former Singapore coach Raddy Avramovic.
Even as defending champions and record four-time winners, the Lions have their work cut out for them.
Stange admitted that Thailand - who reached the semi-finals of the Asian Games - and Vietnam are "ahead of us at the moment".
But he said: "I believe, with our home advantage, we can close that gap."
The former Hertha Berlin coach said he has been heartened by his players' commitment and desire.
Before yesterday's evening session, Stange put them through several fitness tests in the morning. They did functional tests such as sprints over short distances, and stamina tests like the yo-yo test and Beep Test.
They also had their body fat percentage measured, a practice which Stange implemented since last July.
Stange expects his players to carry 10 per cent body fat or less, and was unhappy when most of his players exceeded that mark then. But he said yesterday: "I'm very pleased with our standard now. There has been an unbelievable improvement.
"We have no more problems with body fat. What I said would take one year to improve, took us one-and-a-half.
"But now, you can see through our matches in Austria and at the Asian Games, that we can run. Now, we can compare our fitness (to higher-level opponents)."
THE LIONS SQUAD
- GOALKEEPERS: Hassan Sunny (Warriors), Izwan Mahbud (LionsXII)
- DEFENDERS: Baihakki Khaizan, Afiq Yunos, Safuwan Baharudin (all LionsXII), Al-Qaasimy Abdul Rahman, Amirul Adli (both Courts Young Lions), Shaiful Esah (Tampines Rovers)
- MIDFIELDERS: Hariss Harun (Johor Darul Ta'zim), Faris Ramli, Zulfahmi Arifin, Hafiz Abu Sujad, Gabriel Quak (all LionsXII), Shahdan Sulaiman, Ismadi Mukhtar (both Tampines)
- STRIKERS: Shahril Ishak (Johor Darul Ta'zim II), Khairul Amri, Khairul Nizam, Shahfiq Ghani (all LionsXII), Sahil Suhaimi (Young Lions), Fazrul Nawaz (Home United)
LIONS' UPCOMING FRIENDLIES:
- Oct 10: Hong Kong (A)
- Oct 14: Macau (A)
- Nov 7: Bahrain (A)
- Nov 17: Unconfirmed opponents (h)
Ismadi, 30, on national call-up: I thought it was a prank
He was overlooked for the national team so many times that he had given up all hopes of a call-up.
No wonder Tampines Rovers winger Ismadi Mukhtar was sceptical when he received a text message from someone proclaiming to be Lions coach Bernd Stange last week.
The 30-year-old told The New Paper: "I received a missed call and then a message from the same number that said, 'This is Bernd Stange, national team coach. Please call me back'.
"Of course, I didn't believe it, lah! I thought someone was trying to play a prank on me.
"More or less, I had already given up hopes of a call-up. At my age, I have zero expectations.
"But I returned the call, and it really was him. He told me he was impressed with my performances and wanted me in his team."
Ismadi's selection has raised some eyebrows, as the Lions' AFF Suzuki Cup campaign will begin in six weeks and he had never been considered by former national coach Raddy Avramovic.
But those who watch the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League regularly know the waifish winger possesses terrifying pace, and is as hardworking as they come.
He was even named in TNP's S.League Team of the Year at the end of 2012.
Stange said that Ismadi caught his attention this season with his all-action displays for Tampines, where he has played in left and right wingback, as well as attacking midfield.
The German coach said that he will not hesitate to call up senior players as long as they are good enough.
Just before the Lions left for a training camp in Austria in July, Stange spoke to the media at the airport and reportedly complained about the lack of young players in the S.League.
But he said yesterday: "I'm looking for a special type of player... and Ismadi caught my eye.
"Very much later, I found out he turns 31 this year. So it shows I don't care about age.
AGE NO BARRIER
"This is a wrong message that has somehow been passed to the media. My captain at Belarus, Alyaksandr Kulchy, was 36 years old, but he was a top player."
However, Stange warned that being a senior player means Ismadi must carry more responsibility, even if he is a greenhorn at international level.
"I want him to make a difference and show he can lead," said the former Hertha Berlin coach. "I don't invite a 30-year-old into the national team to be just another player. I need killers.
"My message to Ismadi is simple: Take the chance."
Ismadi insisted that he is up for the challenge.
"I don't want this to be a short-term thing, and I want to be in the Suzuki Cup squad," he said.
"My Tampines teammates like Mustafic Fahrudin and Aleksandar Duric have supported me and told me what to expect in the national team and I want to experience it for myself.
"The pressure is normal and it's healthy. Tampines are a big club in the S.League, so every match, every training session, you're also under pressure to perform. I hope I can share whatever experience I have with some of my younger teammates."
- Name: Ismadi Mukhtar
- Date of Birth: Dec 16, 1983
- Height/weight: 1.68m/55kg
- Position: Wingback/winger
- Clubs: Home United Prime League (2007) Woodlands Wellington (2008-09), Tampines Rovers (2010 to present)
- Favourite player: Paul Scholes
- Favourite food: Chicken rice