Woeful Singapore U-22s held 0-0 by wasteful Laos U-22s
AFC U-23 CHAMPIONSHIP
GROUP J QUALIFIER
LAOS U-22 0
SINGAPORE U-22 0
They knew what they had to do.
Beat hosts Laos in the AFC Under-23 Championship Group J opening qualifier yesterday and the Singapore Under-22 side would have stood a good chance of mixing it up with the big boys of Asian football at the main tournament in Qatar next year.
But Richard Bok's boys blew it in Vientiane last night.
Formless and clueless, the Republic's Under-22 side were dominated by their Laotian counterparts at the Laos National Stadium, escaping with an undeserving 0-0 draw, which was largely down to the home side's shocking profligacy in front of goal.
"I've said before that Laos weren't going to be pushovers and, after the first 10 minutes, we were under a lot of pressure," Bok told The New Paper in a phone interview from Vientiane after the game.
"They created quite a few chances, but they didn't pull the trigger.
"We were lucky to get to half-time at 0-0, but I thought we did better in the second half and created the better chances. I'm disappointed to have not got three points."
With China beating minnows Mongolia 5-0 in an earlier Group J encounter, a win over Laos yesterday would have set the stage for Singapore to qualify for next year's Finals in Qatar as one of five best runners-up from the 10 qualifying groups.
But, from the first whistle, it was obvious that the Singapore youngsters were not up to the task.
On the pitch, the team hardly had a grip on the midfield battle, resorting to punting hopeful long balls up front in the face of relentless Laos pressure.
Led by Laos captain Tiny Bounmalay, and the effervescent Khonesavanh Sihavong, the hosts launched wave after wave of attacks, as the Singapore defence scrambled to clear their lines.
Irfan Fandi did put the ball into the net following a set-piece in the 31st minute, but it was disallowed by the referee for a foul on Laos goalkeeper Soukthavy Soudala.
The Singapore side started to string passes together only after the 57th-minute introduction of skipper Iqbal Hussein, who was left out of the starting line-up after he joined the team only yesterday morning.
He had returned to Singapore on Thursday to attend to the funeral of his grandfather.
Despite dealing with his bereavement, the 21-year-old was the brightest spark for Singapore.
He had arguably the visitors' best chance on the night, running into the box in the 79th minute, only to see his fierce shot bounce off the body of Soukthavy in the Laos goal.
Iqbal appeared to have been brought down in the box in the 88th minute, but was instead harshly shown a yellow card by the referee for diving.
Towards the end, the Singapore players were dropping to the turf like flies, suffering from what appeared to be cramps.
Despite the Football Association of Singapore asserting that preparations had started as long as a year ago, the team had only a week in final preparations before flying off to Laos, with sources revealing that Bok was told to leave the team, before being reinstated.
"Honestly, preparation could have been better. We have students and part-timers in the squad and, if we instead had full-time players and months to prepare, we could have done better," said Bok.
"Finishing in second place in the group is still possible but, whether that's enough to qualify, that is the question."
Bok admitted that it will be tough keeping his players fresh, with two games coming in the next three days.
Singapore play China tomorrow, with kick-off at 5pm, Singapore time.
"Some of our players came down with cramps and we have only a day's break between each of the next two games," said Bok.
"We will need fresh legs to come in."