Singapore choke at AFF Championship, mauled 4-1 by second-string Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR – Singapore’s AFF Championship campaign ended with a whimper on Tuesday, when they were mauled 4-1 by Malaysia in their final Group B match at the Bukit Jalil Stadium.

As a result, the Tigers leapfrogged their old rivals into second place to make the last four at the Lions’ expense.

Malaysia will meet Group A winners Thailand in the semi-finals, with Group B winners Vietnam facing Indonesia.

Pre-match, Malaysia coach Kim Pan-gon had stoked the rivalry and called Singapore’s football “negative”, while proclaiming his side to be “proactive”.

The 53-year-old South Korean was proven right.

The Lions’ three changes to the starting XI that held Vietnam to a 0-0 draw last Friday – with Hafiz Nor, Song Ui-young and Amy Recha coming in for Ryhan Stewart, Faris Ramli and Ilhan Fandi – suggested Singapore coach Takayuki Nishigaya was holding back with Faris and Shawal Anuar on bench.

In comparison, the Tigers’ attack on the pitch was as relentless as the Ultras Malaya’s singing in the stands.

The Tigers’ attack on the pitch was as relentless as the Ultras Malaya’s singing in the stands. PHOTO: The Straits Times

Nishigaya, however, insisted that it was the right tactical decision to start with Amy and use Shawal in the second half as “Amy gave a good performance”.

He added: “We wanted to play higher up the pitch in the first half but we were constantly under attack…

“We wanted to change our defensive shape in the second half, but we couldn’t do it.

“I don’t regret how we set up. We tried to attack and go for goal, but we couldn’t achieve this in this game. We will definitely work to improve on our attacking plays and defensively as well.”


From the start, the visitors were indebted to goalkeeper Hassan Sunny who pulled off a brilliant double save from Faisal Halim and Ruventhiran Vengadesan in the ninth minute.

Eight minutes later, he came to the Lions’ rescue again when he denied Faisal, who had stolen the ball from Hafiz.

But there was nothing Hassan could do in the 35th minute, when Shah Shahiran lost possession on the left flank, and Safawi Rasid whipped in the ball for Darren Lok to power home a near-post header.

In the absence of injured brothers Ikhsan and Ilhan Fandi, Singapore struggled without a target man up front.

They produced only two chances of note in the first half when Irfan Fandi headed wide from a corner and when Song drilled askew from a counter-attack.

A three-minute blitz by the hosts at the start of the second half then killed off the tie and whipped the 65,147 crowd into a frenzy.

Shawal miscued Hariss Harun’s clearance in the 51st minute, and England-born midfielder Stuart Wilkin pounced to thump a long shot into the bottom corner.

The inventive Safawi, who was lucky to escape scot-free for a first-half swipe at Shakir Hamzah, then found himself in acres of space on the right to set up Wilkin for his brace.

In search of a way back, Nishigaya threw Irfan forward, and it was not until the 75th minute that Singapore registered their first shot on target with Zulfahmi Arifin’s free kick.

They did score through Faris in the 85th minute, but Argentina-born striker Sergio Aguero applied the finishing touch to a counter-attack three minutes later to record Malaysia’s biggest Causeway Derby victory since the 4-0 win at the National Stadium in 2002.

Malaysia coach Kim thanked the fans for powering his team to “one of our best performances”, adding: “You could see the passion, team spirit and teamwork.

“We were highly looking forward to this match. The players had been under a lot of pressure from all quarters, including from me. My demands are not easy and they suffered a lot. But they are thirsty, and they want to convince the public they are good players.

“I told them they have to go through this stage to become good players, famous players, which could change their lives.”

Malaysia players celebrating their third goal against Singapore. PHOTO: The Straits Times

Singapore players react after Malaysia scored their third goal. PHOTO: The Straits Times


A mounting injury list – losing attackers Ikhsan, Ilhan and Adam Swandi to knee injuries on the artificial Jalan Besar pitch – and an unfavourable fixture list of four games in 11 days will be cited as valid reasons for this failure.

But the post-mortem must go further than that, as the Lions struggled against Laos and what were essentially second-stringers from Myanmar, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Of their 23-man squad, 13 are aged 30 and above, which suggests a lapse in development and rejuvenation.

Physical and mental fitness must also be looked at, as their rivals are often one step quicker in pace and decision making.

Meanwhile, since their last AFF Championship triumph in 2012, the Lions have choked at the final group game for the third time after the 2014 and 2016 editions.

That solutions are not in sight is the more bitter pill to swallow.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.


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