SINGAPORE — Who will emerge from the doldrums of their past decade? The answer is still up in the air, as Singapore and Indonesia fought to a pulsating 1-1 draw in the first leg of their AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final clash at the National Stadium on Wednesday (22 December).
Witan Sulaeman's first-half goal for the visitors had threatened to deflate the hosts, but the Lions fought back admirably in the second half to grab a precious equaliser from Ikhsan Fandi to keep the intriguing tie on a knife's edge heading into their second leg on Christmas Day.
The Lions were on the back-foot in the first half, but improved dramatically in the second, pegging their opponent back before earning the deserved goal to level the tie.
"I told the boys that that they must play on the pitch, they cannot escape (their responsibilities), they have to show their full potential," coach Tatsuma Yoshida said of his half-time talk to his players.
"Some of them were nervous at the start of the match; I can understand, because we're playing an important game. But they must overcome that, and I'll expect them to be better in the second leg."
Both teams sparkled in group stage
The Lions have faced Indonesia intermittently throughout the Suzuki Cup's history, most memorably in the 2004 edition when they clashed in the two-legged final. Then, Singapore emerged 5-2 aggregate winners to clinch the second of their four Cup triumphs.
In more recent editions, Indonesia had the slight edge, beating the Lions in the 2012 and 2016 editions, but losing their most recent clash 0-1 in 2018 to Hariss Harun's goal.
Under coach Shin Tae-yong - who had coached the South Korea national team at the 2018 World Cup Finals - they have made huge strides in their bid to shed their perennial underachievers tag and win the Suzuki Cup for the first time.
In their four Group B matches, they had scored a whopping 13 goals, and claimed several stellar results such as a 0-0 draw against defending champions Vietnam and a sparkling 4-1 win against Malaysia.
Singapore have also made progress after enduring a period of mediocrity following their fourth Cup triumph in 2012. They have made the final four for the first time in four Cup editions, winning three out of their four Group A matches, including a hard-fought 2-1 victory over the Philippines, semi-finalists in the last Cup edition.
While the Lions made the semi-finals, it came at the cost of two of their regular stalwarts. Forward Gabriel Quak suffered a recurrence of a shoulder dislocation against the Philippines, while left-back Shakir Hamzah limped out of the final group-stage match against Thailand with injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus of his right knee. Both are out of the tournament.
Barnstorming run by captain earns Indonesia's opener
In place of Shakir, Yoshida put his faith in 20-year-old Nur Adam Abdullah, handing the reigning Singapore Premier League Young Player of the Year his third international cap. Newly-naturalised Song Ui-young takes Quak's regular right-wing position, while Yoshida has opted for the more experienced Nazrul Nazari in place of Zulqarnaen Suzliman at right-back.
And it was Nazrul who had his hands full all night trying to contain Indonesia's danger man Irfan Jaya, whose speedy raids down the flank had already brought him three goals so far in the tournament.
Yet, when the Indonesia drew the first blood in the 28th minute, it came from their right flank, as captain Asnawi Mangkualam dispossessed Nur Adam and went on a barnstorming run down the flank, eluding Zulfahmi Arifin's tackle along the way.
He then looked up and made the perfect cut-back for Witan to slot past Hassan Sunny into the bottom left corner.
It was just rewards for Shin's side, who made up for their lack of flair with incessant running and pressing, never allowing the Lions to settle into a passing rhythm all game.
Breakthrough in second half earns Lions equaliser
A goal up, and the Indonesians sat back in the second half, seemingly intent on frustrating the Lions rather than seek a second goal.
And try as they might, the Lions could only conjure half-chances against their sturdy opponents in the initial stages of the half, with Ikhsan trying hard in vain with the supply line being stymied.
It was Faris Ramli, however, who caused the 9,952-strong home crowd to howl in frustration in the 64th minute, when he twisted his way clear on goal, but somehow curled his shot just wide.
But the nippy forward made amends six minutes later, when he danced across the Indonesian defence, before threading a superb pass to Ikhsan. The 22-year-old - who announced before the match that he was joining his brother Irfan at Thai League 1 champions BG Pathum United from Norwegian side FK Jerv - made no mistake against goalkeeper Nadeo Argawinata.
Buoyed by the equaliser, the Lions poured forward in search of a winner, and defender Safuwan Baharudin came closest when his header from a corner hit the left post in the 73rd minute.
Hassan was then called on to make a couple of reassuring saves as Indonesia threatened in the closing stages, but it all sets up a tantalisingly even clash on Saturday between two sides eager to leave their mediocre past decade behind.
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