SINGAPORE — Needing a win to get their qualifying campaign on track after a disappointing start, Singapore's national Under-22 side managed to eke out a 1-0 victory over the Philippines in their Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-23 Asian Cup qualifier at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Thursday (28 October).
A beautifully-curled strike by forward Glenn Kweh six minutes into the second half was enough to give the Young Lions three points to lift them to second spot in Group H, behind defending champions South Korea. The group winners and four best second-placed teams will advance to the final tournament in Uzbekistan next June.
The Young Lions had started their qualifying campaign on Monday with an underwhelming 2-2 draw against 10-man Timor Leste, regarded as the weakest team in Group H. Despite dominating possession against the minnows, the hosts were unable to find the cutting edge in front of goal, while defensive lapses put them 1-2 behind before a last-gasp equaliser by defender Jordan Emaviwe spared the blushes.
A win against the Philippines would have given Singapore the edge in finishing second in the group behind defending champions South Korea - whom they face in a daunting final qualifying match on Sunday - and a chance to still qualify for next year's tournament.
And the hosts began the match with the clear intention to attack, buzzing around the Philippine players - who were speedy and robust but lacked the tactical nous to build cohesive attacks - and forcing them into committing errors.
Midfielder Joel Chew stood out with his darting runs into open spaces to create for his teammates, while Kweh came close twice with close-range shots which were well saved by goalkeeper Quincy Kammeraad.
Yet, as the Young Lions' initial forays came to naught and they began to run out of steam, the defensive lapses crept in again. In the 22nd minute, a throw-in from the Philippines right flank caused confusion among the Singapore defence, and Emaviwe was judged to have pulled down a Philippine attacker in the penalty box.
Up stepped captain Oliver Bias to take the spot kick, but he slammed his shot against the crossbar, much to the relief of the Young Lions and the 984-strong crowd.
Into the second half, and it seemed as if Singapore's front line is running out of ideas to break down the Philippine defence when, out of the blue, they found a moment of magic from Kweh in the 51st minute.
Receiving the ball on the right flank from a diagonal pass by left-back Danish Irfan Azman, the 21-year-old skipped past one defender, then another, then another, before unleashing a low shot from the edge of the area which curled deliciously past Kammeraad into the left corner of the net.
It was a fantastic moment of inspired skill from the nippy forward that lifted the Young Lions as well as the crowd, who resumed their loud cheers as the hosts found the extra step to win the 50-50 balls with more regularity.
"We had a lot of belief among our team, so even though we didn't score in the first half, we trusted one another to keep going to find the breakthrough," Kweh said.
"I've been practising both my inside and outside shooting, so when the opportunity came, I was glad to be able to find the net."
Kweh almost turned provider in the 74th minute, when his slick reverse pass bamboozled the entire Philippine defence and put through substitute Farhan Zulkifli. However, the 18-year-old Hougang United midfielder skewed his attempt wide of the goal.
Both Farhan and substitute midfielder Shah Shahidan would come close to adding to the Young Lions' scoreline in the closing stages, but head coach Nazri Nasir could feel satisfied that his charges negotiated a tricky tie with their hopes of Asian Cup qualification still intact at the final whistle.
"I'm very proud of my players for fighting hard all game against a very physical Philippines side," he said.
"After the first match, we talked about the need to take our chances to score. And tonight we had only a couple of clear-cut chances, so it's good that Glenn was able to create a great goal for us."
Meanwhile, South Korean notched up their second straight win in the qualifying group, thrashing Timor Leste 6-0 in an earlier match at the Jalan Besar Stadium. They had defeated the Philippines 3-0 in their campaign opener.
The Philippines, without a win after two matches, have been eliminated as they cannot catch up with South Korea and Singapore in the group table.
A total of 11 groups are currently contesting in the U-23 Asian Cup qualifiers, with the final tournament to be held in Uzbekistan in June 2022.
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