Stange feels focus on youth will pay off
Lions' coach says a win tonight can open door for Asian Cup chance
SINGAPORE v AFGHANISTAN
(Tonight, 7.30pm, Singtel TV Ch 109 - ELEVEN)
Tapping this reporter on the shoulder after training yesterday, national coach Bernd Stange said: "Did you see... Football is a young man's game."
We were at the National Stadium and it was just after the Lions had finished their final workout before tonight's crucial World Cup/Asian Cup Group E qualifier against Afghanistan. And Stange was referring to his players out on the field, who he believes are developing steadily.
The National Stadium was where it all threatened to unravel for the German - a 3-1 defeat by Malaysia last November saw the Lions knocked out of the AFF Suzuki Cup in the first round.
It was Stange's first Causeway Derby, and there were many who called for his head.
Ten months on, the 67-year-old will be in charge of the Lions for the 31st time as coach.
Said Stange: "We have a good base for the future... I know from my experience that the national team have a cycle, and it takes three, four, five years to build a very strong national team.
"I have so many battles with you and your colleagues (the media) when we dropped (Mustafic) Fahrudin, Ismail Yunos, Noh Rahman, Shi Jiayi and Qiu Li, and many more.
"We kept the backbone, players who can lead a young team, with an average age of 25.5 years. That's logical, there will be success soon."
Into his third year with the Lions, Stange has culled several senior players, handed first caps to around 20, and masterminded a shock 0-0 draw against mighty Japan.
And he is confident of taking Singapore to the 2019 Asian Cup.
To do so, the Lions have to either win the group, or finish as one of the four best runners-up from eight groups, or go through another round of qualifiers.
This will be Stange's first match in charge since he recently signed a contract extension that will see him here at least until April.
The Football Association of Singapore wanted to ensure continuity, especially after the German started off this campaign in impressive fashion.
He said: "This has nothing to do with my contract. We try to do our best. We are one team, we are altogether and very focused for this match.
"It was a long way to go to find this team. There was so much criticism but now even in this situation, I feel, 'Well done, Bernd'."
The former Belarus, Oman and Iraq coach swopped the 4-2-3-1 formation used previously by the Lions for a 4-3-3, and installed centre back Safuwan Baharudin as a midfielder, alongside Hariss Harun and Izzdin Shafiq.
Under Stange, striker Khairul Amri is also enjoying a second wind in his international career, scoring in almost every other game.
Actual results have been mixed - Stange insisted three wins and two draws out of eight games this year, are "average, not good".
He backed his boys to go all the way and seal qualification to the Asian Cup, even if the route may go beyond his existing contract.
"If we want to go to the Asian Cup, we need points now," said Stange.
"It is difficult when current runners-up from other groups are making amazing results, winning by big margins.
"Our road there may not finish in 2015, it could end very late in 2017 or even 2018.
"We have to make the National Stadium our fortress, so winning the first of our upcoming four home games will have a big psychological impact.
"I should be confident with the players we have because there are more requests from overseas to look for our players. If we continue playing this way, it's interesting for many clubs to take young players from Singapore."
PROBABLE SINGAPORE LINE-UP:
Izwan Mahbud, Nazrul Ahmad Nazari, Madhu Mohana, Baihakki Khaizan, Shaiful Esah, Izzdin Shafiq, Zulfahmi Arifin, Fazrul Nawaz, Shahril Ishak, Hafiz Abu Sujad, Khairul Amri.