SINGAPORE — A gritty 0-0 draw against Vietnam four days ago gave Singapore an advantage to defend as they faced arch-rivals Malaysia in their AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup Group B clash on Tuesday (3 January).
But the grim reality hit the Lions in the imposing Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.
Needing only a draw to advance into the semi-finals, they instead crumbled 1-4 after failing miserably to cope with the incessant pressure from the home side, and were knocked out of the competition in the opening group stage after making the final four in the last edition.
They can have no complaints. Malaysia were by far the better side, patiently probing in the opening passages before cranking up a gear and putting three superb goals past Hassan Sunny in either side of half-time to seal a memorable win over their Causeway neighbours.
The Tigers set up a semi-final showdown against Group A winners Thailand, while Vietnam will face Indonesia in the other semi-final after topping Group B with a 3-0 win over Myanmar on Tuesday.
In contrast, Singapore reverted to their shaky form in their opening two Group B matches against Myanmar and Laos, neither able to keep possession nor nullify attacking threats like they did against Vietnam.
As they lick their wounds over their elimination, head coach Takayuki Nishigaya will have much work to do to improve the Lions from this dispiriting AFF Cup campaign where they struggle to string together cohesive attacking passages against Vietnam and Malaysia.
Hosts dominated from opening whistle
From the opening whistle, Malaysia swarmed the Singapore defence with intent, forcing the Lions defence into make last-ditch headers and tackles to keep the likes of Faisal Halim and Safawi Rasid at bay.
But whichever teammates the Lions defenders sought to find to ease the pressure, possession was all too easily lost to the marauding Malaysian midfielders, and another wave of attack ensued.
While the Lions refused to crack against Vietnam on their Jalan Besar home ground, they eventually did amid the deafening roar of the Malaysian fans at Bukit Jalil.
In the 35th minute, Safawi dispossessed Shah Shahiran on the edge of the penalty box, drove down the right flank before putting an inch-perfect cross from Darren Lok to head strongly home.
It was a richly-deserved lead for Malaysia's enterprise, and Singapore were under pressure to respond for the second half. Instead of rising to the occasion, they crashed in conceding twice in four minutes to the same player, midfielder Stuart Wilkin.
The England-born player barged off substitute Shawal Anuar in the 50th minute, took a step forward before launching a long-range screamer that Hassan could only touch into goal.
That goal took the wind out of Singapore's sails, as heads drooped at the huge task ahead. But 2-0 quickly became 3-0 in the 54th minute, as Wilkin punished some lacklustre defending, having all the time in the world to spin and score inside the penalty area to wild delight from the Malaysian bench.
Veteran winger Faris Ramli pulled a goal back from Singapore, slamming home after a fine pull-back from the right flank by Amy Recha in the 84th minute.
But Malaysia had the final word in delivering the knockout blow to their arch-rivals in the 88th minute, as substitute Sergio Aguero scores a sumptuous curler from outside the box to seal the resounding win.
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