SINGAPORE — Try as they might, but Singapore continue to find Thailand an insurmountable block at the AFF Suzuki Cup, as they succumbed to their regional rivals 0-2 at the National Stadium on Saturday (18 December).
Even as the Thais made 11 changes and rested several of their key players, the Lions could not turn their possession advantage into goals and were punished by their more clinical opponents, as they lost for the first time in the tournament after victories against Myanmar, the Philippines and Timor-Leste.
It was just as well that this was not a win-or-go-home match, as both sides have already booked their semi-final spots after victories in their prior matches. The Thais thus advanced as Group A winners, while the Lions settled for second spot.
Both teams will find out their semi-final opponents on Sunday, after the completion of the Group B matches. Group leaders Indonesia face a tough assignment with Malaysia, who must win to book their last-four spot, while defending Suzuki Cup champions Vietnam - who are in second spot but level on points with Indonesia - play minnows Cambodia.
Lions head coach Tatsuma Yoshida became agitated during the post-match media conference, when asked about the poor result and the fact some of the fans were booing his team.
"We are always on the way to improvement, and we need the fans to be on our side. We haven't qualified for the semi-finals for nine years, and this is good progress for the team. I am always proud of this team's efforts," he said before abruptly ending the conference.
Not beaten Thailand since 2012 final
Singapore had not beaten Thailand since the 2012 Suzuki Cup final first leg, when they snatched a 3-1 win at Jalan Besar Stadium, before holding on to win the Cup for the fourth time despite a 0-1 defeat in the second leg in Bangkok.
In the nine years since the final, the Lions had not beaten the War Elephants in four encounters, scoring only once while letting in eight goals against their regional rivals.
Head coach Tatsuma Yoshida fielded a strong starting line-up to try and end that losing streak, reinstating veterans Faris Ramli and Shahdan Sulaiman while benching Song Ui-young and Adam Swandi.
However his Thai counterpart Alexandre Polking opted to rest a slew of stalwarts, including captain Chanathip Sonkrasin and left-back Teerathon Bunmathan, while striker Teerasil Dangda - who broke the all-time scoring record when he notched his 18th and 19th goal of the tournament in their 2-1 win against Philippines on Tuesday - could only make the bench.
Setback with Shakir Hamzah injury
The match started with both sides flying in with crunching tackles, and it was the Lions who came off worse as defence mainstay Shakir Hamzah had to go off injured, being replaced by Zulfahmi Arifin.
Despite the setback, the Lions looked lively early on as they pressed the Thai defence hard, with Shawal Anuar a menacing presence down the right flank and striker Ikhsan Fandi testing goalkeeper Siwarak Tedsungnoen with a couple of half-chances.
Yet, the Thais took the lead against the run of play in the 31st minute. Bordin Phala's swerving free-kick from the right side of the box was well-saved by Hassan Sunny, but defender Yusef Elias Dolan was on hand to slam home the rebound.
The goal silenced the 9,540-strong crowd, as the Lions also looked stunned by the Thais' smash-and-grab success. Just as they began to pick themselves back up to threaten the Thai defence again, their opponents struck again in first-half stoppage time.
After Faris lost possession near the right flank, midfielder Worachit Kanitsribumphen received the ball and laid a superb through pass for an onrushing Supachai Chaided, who made no mistake with a fierce low drive.
With the two-goal advantage, the Thais sat back and soaked up the pressure as the Lions huffed and puffed to no avail, with their ponderous build-ups causing little trouble.
While Singapore ultimately achieved their goal of making the semi-finals for the first time since 2012, Yoshida will have his hands full trying to come up with a game plan for success in the knockout stages for the limited Lions.
The Philippines, who were already eliminated after losing 1-2 to Thailand on Tuesday, completed their Group A games with a 3-2 win over Myanmar in a match played concurrently at the Bishan Stadium. Striker Bienvenido Maranon scored a hat-trick for the Azkals, while Htet Pyo Wai replied for Myanmar with a brace.
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