Wednesday, December 16, 2009

SEA Games Bronze Medal Playoff Preview: Singapore U23 v Laos U23

Terry Pathmanathan has the difficult task of lifting the crestfallen young Singaporeans after their 4-1 thrashing at the feet of the Vietnamese in the SEA Games semi-finals as the bronze medal playoff against hosts Laos loom on Thursday afternoon (Singapore time).

Like their last group B "friendly" fixture, the Young Lions will once again have to contend with the loud support of 20,000 Laotians who will be willing their side to win their first ever football medal of the Games.

To make matters worse, Shaiful Esah is sidelined after suffering a serious knock in the last match. Gabriel Quak is set to be his replacement on the left flank, probably the only enforced change for the playoff.

While every Young Lion has seen some action in Vientiane so far, it remains to be seen whether the fringe players such as Firdaus Idros, Madhu Mohana and Shahfiq Ghani could be thrown into the fray as the team look to regain some pride with a bronze.

As usual, it remains to be seen whether the shakiest back four of the tournament (after Timor Leste and Cambodia) can provide some security for the goalkeeper. It is also interesting to see how much possession these boys can retain on the ground without looking silly or nervy.

Honestly it is pointless to talk about the opponents again unless the Singaporeans choose to get their act together and end their Games adventure on a high. Historically for this nation, the game has always been a hit-and-miss affair.

Laos are underdogs, but they are no longer minnows at this level after their brave performances throughout this Games. Alfred Riedl will ensure his side put on a good show in front of their people and provide a satisfactory end to their journey.

More information about Laos can be seen in this previous entry.

A Tale of Two Asian Teams in FIFA Club World Cup

Two teams are flying the flag for Asia in the ongoing FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE). The champions of the host nation Al Ahli and AFC Champions League winners Pohang Steelers of Korea Republic experience contrasting fortunes in the tournament though.

The former crashed out in the first game of the tournament as they succumbed 2-0 to Oceania champions Auckland City in the play-off to reach the quarter-finals. The result only highlighted how much more the Emiratis need to work to bring their football to be among the best in the continent.

UAE have the financial muscle to compete among the big players in world football (although the recent Dubai crisis has put a slight dent to that) and their football facilities are simply second to none, comparable to the best footballing nations in the world.

While their oil money can help turn Manchester City into an ambitious, serious outfit in the Barclays Premier League and attract star names to ply their trade on their shores, it is unable to translate into success at continental level, be it for club or country.

Their clubs suffered badly in the 2009 AFC Champions League group stage as all crashed out. One of them even went on to withdraw from the competition with four games played, putting a severe dent on the prestiege of the competition. That club in question was subsequently banned from the next two editions of the tournament with the added option of extending into a third.

Meanwhile, precocious talents have been running through the youth ranks in UAE over the years, but they have not been able to translate their success at age group into senior level. Al Ahli boast their latest teen prodigy in Ahmed Khalil who won the Asian Youth Player of the Year in 2008.

Their opponents Auckland do not boast the same financial muscle or the talent that can compete among the world's best. They come from a country that had recently qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup since 1982 and boasted one professional team playing in the Australian A-League.

Yet these paupers showed the shiekhs how to play football as they outplayed and outfought the hosts to triumph. They demonstrated money could buy almost everything, but not instant success which is often built over some time.

Perhaps the Dubai club could take a leaf out of the Koreans. Pohang are kings of Asia just one year after they were knocked out at the first round group stage in 2008.

Sometimes failure to reach the next round of the most prestigeous club competition in the continent could mean the end of the coach's tenure. But the Steelers board apparently saw something in Brazilian tactician Sergio Farias to keep him in the hot seat.

Their faith was rewarded when they beat Saudi Arabian giants Al Ittihad to be crowned champions of Asia and subsequently put on a creditable performance in Abu Dhabi. They came form behind to beat African winners TP Mazembe of Congo 2-1 in the quarters before losing by the same score to South American kings Estudiantes La Plata while being reduced to eight men.

By reaching the last four, the Steelers repeated the showings made by Gamba Osaka of Japan and Al Ittihad in previous editions of the tournament. Their influential Brazilian forward Denilson might not be in Dunga's sight for the Selecao for the World Cup, but his predatory instincts showed he could match against the best clubs in the world.

While not as cash-rich as their UAE counterparts, Pohang demonstrated their strengths in tactical discipline and maturity to punch above the weight and do the continent proud. They made Juan Sebastian Veron and company work for their win in the semis and could proudly lift their heads high for their commendable performance against the odds.

The shortcomings the Asian sides showed in the Club World Cup only further highlights the need for all Asian clubs to step up their level of professionalism on and off the pitch, from investment of facilities and youth development to scouring around the world for quality import signings that will not only boost their home league's profile, but also of the standard of football in their country.

Until the day comes when an Asian club can adequately rise up to stretch the top European and South American clubs to their limits, AFC Pro League and AFC President Mohammad Bin Hammam still have much work to do to bring the diverse continent up to speed in professional football.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Vietnam 4 Singapore 1: Big Defensive Lesson for Young Lions

The Singaporean footballers seem to be biannual poorer cousins to their water polo counterparts. While the latter are relied upon to deliver gold, the former's dreams of hitting the jackpot have been extended after losing 4-1 to Vietnam in the first semi-final played on Monday.

Although the Young Lions took the lead mid way in the first half against the run of play, it was the opposition who took charge of the game all the way from start to finish and deservedly won the game to advance to the final.

The Vietnamese were mobile in their short passing and off-the-ball running; the Singaporeans were content to defend and counter with long balls. While it was fine to adopt a soak-and-strike strategy as it effectively showed in the first 30 minutes whenever the Young Lions had the ball, the fragile back four was always going to be a major concern.

Prior to the game, it was highlighted in the preview that the Singaporeans had to eradicate the mistakes they committed against group opponents if they were to have a chance to cause an upset.

It also warned that a repeat of these errors would see them being punished without a second chance for redemption. And that was virtually exactly what happened.

Not even goalkeeper Hyrulnizam Juma'at's commendable performance between the posts, including saving a penalty from Phan Thanh Binh, could cover up the glaring weaknesses that were waiting to be exposed.

At the same time, much was expected of skipper Isa Halim, Shaiful Esah, Hariss Harun and Shahdan Sulaiman to step up their game to give the Singaporeans some hope. None of them managed to do so.

Isa and Hariss had too much to do shielding the back four in vain while Shaiful looked off colour in defence and attack, apart from a few deadly crosses on the left that nearly reaped rewards.

Shahdan and the rest of the team seemed to be on different wavelengths on the style of play. Many were too busy pumping hopeful long balls for Khairul Nizam to chase and Shahdan had too little of the ball to make more through passes.

The Vietnamese also managed to isolate Shahdan and Nizam up front for much of the game. With the attacking gear shut out, it was inevitable then the floodgates would eventually open given the pressure they exerted on the defence from the start.

The victors kept much possession of the ball, played several one-twos that had the red shirts confused and left gaps in defence that were exploited by their forwards. Once they found the equalizer two minutes after Nizam's opening goal against the run of play, there was to be no second chance for Young Lions this time.

They could have had more goals to dish out a bigger lesson, but Hyrulnizam spared further embarassment for Terry Pathmanathan and his colleagues. In the end, the 4-1 result was just fruits for the Vietnamese domination, and also the defensive loopholes from the Singaporeans.

Now Singapore have to contest a bronze medal playoff against hosts Laos, who lost to Malaysia in the other semi-final, and it will not be as friendly as the goalless draw the previous time they meet in Group B.

Even then, they were nearly embarassed by Lamnao Singto and company in the second half. With the home side expected to be backed by a full house National Stadium, it would take a miracle for the Singaporeans to clinch the bronze.

Monday, December 14, 2009

India Are South Asian Champions

India have underlined their dominance in South Asia as their Under-23 team won the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Cup against Maldives on penalties in the final at Bangladesh on Sunday.

The manner at which they won the tournament only served to demonstrate the rise of Indian football from the ashes after long periods in the doldrums since the Barefooted Wonders of the 1950s.

To win with their youth team only served to underline their strength in depth as befitting the second most populous nation in the world. That advantage, however, was only confined to the region itself.

Even then, the winning team would concede this was never going to be a stroll in the park. Up against the improving Maldives team, the young Indians were made to work hard all the way to win this title.

The talent in depth will leave their national team coach Bob Houghton with many things to ponder as he prepares the senior team to take on the cream of Asian football in the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar in just more than a year.

As good as the Indians are, South Asia is fundamentally the weakest region in Asia. Teams from West, East and Central Asia will provide sterner tests to their capabilities.

Some of the winning squad will be drafted in to complement the experience of Deepak Kumar Mondal and evergreen legend Baichung Bhutia.

How these boys will cope with the increased pressures and demands of international football at a higher level could not only determine the team's fate in Qatar, but also whether this sport is able to provide competition to cricket as their number one sport.

The hard work to fly the Indian flag in the Middle East come 2011 begins now.

For full match report on that final, here is the link:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Preview of SEA Games Semi-final: Vietnam v Singapore

It will be the sternest test for the Singapore Under-23s' medal aspirations as they take on Vietnam in the first semi-final to be played at Chao Avoung Stadium at 7pm (Singapore time).

The Young Lions have been far from satisfactory during the group stage with their Jekyll and Hyde performances. Assured in the first 45 minutes, clumsy in the next. Stout in the first half, helter-skelter in the next.

Fortunately the group opponents have not been that ruthless to make them pay for their defensive calamities. Vietnam Under-23s, under the Suzuki Cup-winning coach Henrique Calisto, will be another story altogether.

While few from their senior side are featuring in the biennial event, they are reputed to be quick, fast and deadly in front of goal. Three wins and a draw in the first round demonstrated their dominance against tough opponents in Thailand and Malaysia in their pool.

Astray passes will be siezed. Lapses in concentration will be capitalized. Lack of imagination and ideas will ensure dominance. Not the scenarios coach Terry Pathmanathan will like to contemplate ahead of the big one.

Shaiful Esah, Hariss Harun and Shahdan Sulaiman were rested in the last game against the host nation and will have to step up their game if the Young Lions are to be in contention.

Understandably, the Singapore fans back home will be counting on Shaiful's left foot to execute pinpoint set-pieces en route to goal as all four goals the team have scored thus far came from this method.

Hariss will need to shield the fragile defence in defensive midfield alongside team captain Isa Halim as they look to keep the speedy Vietnamese in check.

However, the player who has the biggest say in how the team will fare is Shahdan. The Home United playmaker has to use his distribution abilities to good effect and hope our blunt forwards can deliver something from open play.

Defensively the whole team have to concentrate and learn from their earlier mistakes in the tournament. Any repeat will only mean trouble for this young team.

Correct many of the mistakes made, and there is every hope of an upset and the continued quest for the 'improbable' football gold medal.

Super Reds Football Idol Auditions

Around 200 wannabes flocked down to the SAFRA Tampines pitch this morning as they hoped to be among the successful candidates who will don the red jersey of Super Reds FC.

For the record, Super Reds used to be an all-Korean team before a decision was made at the end of the 2009 season to go local as they bidded to remain in the S.League for the upcoming 2010 season.

In their bid to look for Singaporeans to fill up the slots, an open trial is called, with the players looking to impress the "judges", Super Reds coach Jeon Kyeong Joon and former Lions goalkeeper David Lee.

A few of them had played at the highest level while some used to be involved in the local clubs' Prime League and Centre of Excellence sides. There were also others who had impressed at school or institution level and were looking to use this opportunity to impress.

Reputation and prior experience meant little as the experienced eyes of the selectors were looking at those who could make a different to the new-look Super Reds should the team be readmitted as a local side.

This is the first time in a long while that an open trial has been conducted by a local professional club. Previously there will be players who can be seen trying out with different teams at the start of the new football calendar, but they are usually full and far between.

Due to the newness in creating a local outfit from its foreign predecessor from scratch, there is a necessity for such an exercise. Gone is the familiarity factor, as it is open season for all.

Skeptics may be wondering why go through all this trouble when a place in the league is not even assured yet. Give credit to the Super Reds though for taking initiative rather than waiting for things to happen.

By taking the risk of having such an open trial, it also shows from this exercise there is talent on display. As one official conducting the trial remarked: "Who says Singapore have no footballing talent?"

If the tried-and-trusted system with a club fails, perhaps an open audition for new players is a better solution. It allows the newcomers to come in and challenge the so-called established footballers who will be made to play on their toes. Cue local minnows Balestier Khalsa, Woodlands Wellington and Sengkang Punggol to do the same to reverse their fortunes?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Simply Sensational SEA Games!

Fairy tales are alive in Laos as far as the SEA Games football tournament is concerned. The host nation Laos have defied all odds to top Group B and reach the semi-finals which will be played on Monday.

Typically thought to be football minnows in the region, they have been well-drilled in their tactics under Austrian Alfred Riedl. They now have guile and tactical astuteness to complement their determination and never-say-die attitude.

In Lamnao Singto, they also have a powerful forward who is capable of taking on the best of defences in Southeast Asia. He gave our Young Lions backline a stern test with his nippy running and shooting from different ranges, coming close to breaking the deadlock on a few occasions.

With 20,000 Laotians willing them, whatever happens from there on, this team will be remembered for breaking new frontiers in their football development. There is every chance they will become a credible, competitive team if the Laotian football authorities are able to keep the core and Riedl intact in the next few years.

They may not reach these heights again at senior level international football, but they can no longer be summarily dismissed as the Lions did in their 11-0 thrashing a few years ago.

Equally shocking news to have come out from this tournament is defending champions Thailand and Indonesia crashing out at the first out.

After losing 2-1 to Malaysia in their final group game, Thailand are eliminated by finishing outside the top two in Group A. By doing so, Thailand SEA Games Steve Darby has broken a few unwanted records.

The last time the Thais failed to win gold was in 1991. The last time the Thais missed the final was back in 1989. The last time the Thais did not advance beyond the first stage was futher way back in 1973. He, who formerly helped the Vietnamese women's football team to a medal, had done the nightmarish improbable, as far as the Thais will be concerned.

Indonesia went one better as they finished bottom of Group B with only one point, a 2-2 draw with Singapore. Yes, the statistics do not lie. They are officially worse than hosts Laos, Myanmar and Singapore in this Games. The Indonesians will be wondering what went wrong there as they went from bad to worse with each passing game.

Would the coaches of the Thai and Indonesian squads be spared the axe? Looking from history, that looks pretty unlikely. Indonesia axed Peter Withe after he failed to bring the senior team to the semi-finals of the AFF Cup in 2007. Thailand sacked German Sigfried Held after their early exit in the Tiger Cup 2004/05 group stage.

It also shows how tightly competitive the top of Asean football has become. Vietnam are now the reigning kings, but if they do not win the gold medal in Laos, the struggle to be number one in the region returns.

Under former international K Rajagobal, the Malaysians have been shaping up nicely in this tournament. Despite all the funny business inside the Kelana Jaya permises, these boys are focused on getting the job done on the pitch. They have clocked up international experience and will be looking to put all these into good use in their remaining two games, starting from Monday.

Meanwhile, with the final four settled (Vietnam v Singapore, Laos v Malaysia), let the fight for the medals begin!

2009 SEA Games Laos v Singapore Post-match Analysis

1995 SEA Games, 0-0. 2007 SEA Games, also 0-0. 2009 SEA Games, still 0-0 and both hosts Laos and Singapore make it to the last four.

Unlike the previous two occasions when the Singaporeans could not unlock the stubborn Laotian resistance, they barely got a point this time. By playing short passes around their half, especially near their penalty area.

Prior to the game at the sell-out Laos National Stadium, Myanmar defeated Indonesia 3-1. That left both sides needing a point if they were to deny Myanmar a place in the semi finals.

Top scorer and defender Safuwan Baharudin was suspended. Goalkeeper Jasper Chan remained injured and forward Khairul Nizam was ruled out after suffering from food poisoning on the eve of the game.

With one eye on the semi-finals, coach Terry Pathmanathan also left Shaiful Esah, Shahdan Sulaiman and Hariss Harun, who was on one yellow card, on the bench and named a makeshift side to keep Laos, backed by 20,000 vociferous fans at the ground, at bay.

The Young Lions stated their intent immediately after kick off-by playing short passes among themselves and barely getting past the halfway mark. It took more than 90 seconds for the chasing red shirts to finally have a touch of the ball.

That similar pattern persisted until the final whistle and both teams had their wish of reaching the semis. Young Lions, even if you have wanted to play such passing football, it could have been done with more finesse instead of retreating these passes back into your area.

It was frustrating to see the Singaporeans living so dangerously especially when the Laotians were determined to get a goal more than them. Undoing all that monkey with a stupid slip at a dangerous position was madness.

They could have been a goal down and be plunged into trouble had Afiq Yunos not cleared the ball off the line early in the second half. Other desperate attempts only signalled desperate to hang on to a point and semi-final spot.

The more technical and astute teams would have ripped these young boys apart and sent them back to their dressing room with tails on their rears, full strength line up or otherwise.

With their potential semi-final opponents to be among Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia from Group A, Pathmanathan will have his work cut out in minimising these 'alamak' moments that had fans cringing on television sets so far.

At the end of the first stage, Singapore Under-23s did just enough to meet the minimum expectations set by Football Association of Singapore-reaching the semis.

They were unbeaten, drawing two and winning the other. Apart from injuries and illness, there would be no suspension cases in the last four.

The question though, can the Young Lions step up their plate to fulfill their potential in their remaining two games in Laos-the semi-finals and either the final or bronze medal playoff?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Will FAM Ever Learn?

After looking at Jakarta Casual and Bola Today, Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) is a "Truly Malaysia" organization. Can anyone tell me which football league in the world that has a promotion and relegation system make as outstanding a decision as them?

Typically, with the exception of promoted teams unable to fulfill financial obligations to be among the teams in the elite, as is the case in the K-League sometimes, or financial irregularities, all promoted team should be taking their places in the top flight.

Thus, Harimau Muda, the national under-19 team who are also the 2009 Malaysian Premier League champions, ought to be competing alongside giants Selangor and Negri Sembilan. But no, thanks to the "wisdom" of the FAM President, the Sultan of Pahang Sultan Ahmad Shah, they will now defend their title instead.

Is this fair to the young boys who often had to play in front of empty stadiums and cannot participate in the Malaysia Cup and FA Cup? Given the state of development of the game in this country, this should have been the best opportunity for them to pit their skills against the best locals (since no foreigners are allowed to play in Malaysia, again thanks to FAM) in the Super League.

So Arzaai Khor's team will have to settle for second-best once again when there is nothing within the competition regulations that they cannot be promoted whether they finish among the promotion places or otherwise. Where is the meritocracy?

It could even lead to some of the better teams from the class of 2009 being poached away by the bigger clubs in the country. Not every player has the quality like the Zaquan and Zafuan twins to immediately command a place in the starting eleven. A pity that some of these promising talents are bound to be wasted.

Who benefitted from this decision then? Fallen giants Pahang, who were originally supposed to be playing in the Premier League, keep their top-flight status. Whether it is the intervention of their patron or not, it does not really matter.

Giant teams have risen and fallen before rebounding back to the top. Manchester United and AC Milan had their downers before. Even long-time giants Selangor were relegated to the second tier earlier this decade. If the Red Giants were allowed to fall, why not Pahang?

They are presently a pale shadow of their former glories. Big-name players deserted them for bigger pay packets and better conditions. Fandi Ahmad, Dollah Salleh and Zainal Abidin Hassan, the heroes of their 1992 Malaysia Cup triumph, have long retired.

Hence it is no surprise that Malaysia are ranked among the continent's worst leagues by the Asian Football Condeferation Pro League Committee. Even better, only Selangor are flying the Malaysia flag in next year's AFC Cup.

Present Thailand assistant coach Steve Darby, who once coached Perak, once commented that the Malaysians have this inward mentality that winning at home (ie Malaysia Cup) is more important than competing in Asia. With such an attitude, is it no surprise that Malaysian football remains a laughing joke today?

One disaster, promises of reform. Another disaster, another round of promises. How many disasters do FAM need to realize that they are actually the problem, not the solution? Malaysians have given up. Malaysian media care but are long tired of such nonsense.

The farce has been ongoing long enough. If that continues, perhaps production houses can make a long-running drama series out of such decision-making under Sultan Ahmad Shah.

Fresh Faces for S.League 2010

Three new foreigners, a Swede, a Croat and a Uruguayan for reigning league champions Singapore Armed Forces, as reported by the Straits Times today. None of them had prior experience playing in Southeast Asia, let alone the continent.

For the Warriors to make such an extensive effort in scouring around the globe for their new foreign signings signals their seriousness in wanting to be competitive in Asia after having a taste of how elite club football was like in the AFC Champions League at the first half of the year.

As the leading club in this football-mad nation, they are now setting the tone in the hunt for quality players who can regenerate the domestic scene following a dour 2009. For the last few seasons, virtually every local club was guilty of being content with familiarity and cost-effectiveness in their search for imports.

The trade-off was eventually a dour league that culminiated in what was the worst season ever this year, despite the few highs such as SAFFC in the Champions League and a foreign team winning a local competition. Staying in Singapore for too long has led to a deterioration in the playing qualities of several long-serving imports. They had served the league well in the past, but they are no longer the same as they were in their prime.

The best and most well-off clubs have the resources to go around the globe to hunt for talent, but how about the more modest teams who may not have the resources as those of the bigger teams?

A proposed solution is to get creative and also get down to player-hunting in Japan and South Korea, instead of waiting for connections from other people or getting lucky in their picks.

In recent seasons, there has been a quiet increase in former J.League players (not those who spent so much of their time there warming the bench) plying their trade here. Tetsuya Okayama, now retired after a stint with Albirex Niigata (Singapore), once played alongside legendary England predator Gary Lineker in Nagoya Grampus Eight then coached by Arsene Wenger.

Then there was one-time All-Star defender Haruki Seto and this season, former Kashima Antlers defender Seiji Kaneko joined Tampines Rovers and contributed significantly to his team being the stingiest defence in the league.

If sushi is not to the clubs' liking, there is still kimchi. SAFFC winger Park Tae Won was the trailblazer with his heroics with Jurong FC, Balestier Khalsa and Woodlands Wellington before moving to his present employers.

Regular K-League stalwart and two-time AFC Champions League winner Jeon Kyeong Joon was a hit with Home United before hanging his boots to become Super Reds coach, guiding the Koreans to the league runners-up place in 2008.

In these two markets alone, there are decent players who have plied their trade at the highest levels who have been released by their former clubs. They are generally affordable for the more well-off teams to look and consider.

This has been said in the media previously, and it will be said again. At one time, the league got it right when an exodus of established Thai internationals flocked to our shores to play before the Thai scene improved and the more lucrative V-League came calling.

Now the V-League and Super Liga Indonesia prove more attractive to the region's top players. The Thais and Singaporeans flocked south on the promises of good money and capacity crowds, where both of these are real challenges to all local S.League teams. 

Does that mean our local clubs should just resign themselves that the top players in the region are unattainable to our shores? Their attitudes generally seem so, but this should not be the way.

All is not lost. Look at the ongoing SEA Games football tournament and there is some potential talent who could be within their reach budget-wise. Do not just let the Thais or Vietnamese grab them, go for them too.

Raid the Malaysian League for a few gems as well (provided they are also willing to undergo hardship to pass the Beep Test, the once-a-year fitness exam for S.League players) if they dare to. Opportunities are there.

S.League, like the Singapore civil service, is renowned for administrative excellence. But that does not go far in the jungle of football. We are among the so-called Top 10 Asian Leagues because of that. But if other Asian countries wake up from their slumber and catch up, then S.League will be among the minnows.

Minnows do not go to Champions League. Minnows get the bread crumbs left by the larger leagues. Tampines Rovers and now SAFFC are doing their part to avoid that, but are the other local clubs doing enough?

What Young Lions Will Need To Do Against Laos...

It will be back to business for the Singapore Under-23s when they take on hosts Laos in their final Group B match of the SEA Games football tournament.

After drawing with Indonesia 2-2 and beating Myanmar 2-1, the Young Lions seem to have one foot in the next stage. Their final group opponents would typically have been the task of collecting three points in any international competition.

However, this Laotian team, coached by former Vietnam coach Alfred Riedl, are sensational on home ground. They held Myanmar to a 1-1 draw in their opening game before stunning the Indonesians 2-0 to go top on superior goal difference.

Recent SEA Games history have also favoured the home side when they play the Young Lions. Two years ago, they defended their way to a goalless draw. Ditto 1995, when they also held stoutly for a point against the Lions. (For those who do not know, SEA Games football is now an under-23 age group event since 2001.)

Another draw will do for both teams as they will proceed to the semi-finals on that outcome, regardless on what has gone on in the earlier game between the other two sides in the group.

But should the preceding game produce a winner, there is everything to play for. And with 20,000 Laotians making their presence felt at National Stadium in Vientiane, it will be a stern test of nerves for the Young Lions, many of whom are encountering the partisan capacity crowd for the first time in their senior playing careers.

It will be up to the three senior internationals in the team-skipper Isa Halim, set-piece specialist Shaiful Esah and holding midfielder Hariss Harun to do their part on the pitch to steady nerves.

The boys should focus on how to maintain consistency in their play over the full 90 minutes plus. If they repeat their game of two halves as they did in their previous matches, they might not be able to get away against a fired-up Laos team this time.

With team top scorer and regular defender Safuwan Baharudin suspended, the centre-back pairing selected will have to be very focused against the dangerous Laotian forward line led by Thai-based Lamnao Singto.

The PEA striker netted twice to send his country top and is keen to repeat his feat at the expense of Young Lions, who were charitiable defensively in the second half of their games.

And there is Riedl. The Austrian attained cult status during his three stints with the Vietnamese national team for bringing them to the Asean Football Federation Tiger Cup (now renamed Suzuki Cup) final and their memorable Asian Cup run to the quarter-finals in 2007.

With his expertise on the game in the region, he will be looking to recreate this level of joy in Laos since taking on his present role in June. With the hosts on the cusp of reaching the semi-finals for the first time and the locals willing them on, the Singapore Under-23s have a real fight to keep their SEA Games adventure alive.

While this is the republic's youngest football team to participate in this event, they have every potential of winning the gold medal as much as their rivals Thailand and Vietnam from the other group.

Potential is nothing without effort and results to show for. Terry Pathmanathan needs to tell the boys to stay consistent and keep things simple on the pitch. The players in turn should not try anything too fanciful in defence and attack.

Delayed telecast or no back in Singapore, the nation awaits to find out whether these young lads have the steel that can bring forth a new legacy, starting from the Laos mission.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

SEA Games 2009-Young Lions' Performance So Far

Danger still lurks for the Singapore Under-23 football team in Group B, despite them notching a 2-1 win against Myanmar following an opening 2-2 draw against Indonesia in the 2009 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games football tournament held in Laos.

For both games, the youngest football team in this event had produced Jekyll-and-Hyde performances. In each case, they were in control in the first half, only for them to display panicky defensive performances after the break.

With the majority of the team under the age of 21 (there are only three 23-years-old-captain Isa Halim, Shaiful Esah and goalkeeper Hyrulnizam Juma'at), the competitive inexperience at this level showed.

In their games played, they raced to 2-0 leads each time, all attributed to Shaiful's expert left foot from set-pieces. And it seemed that this was the easiest and only route to score.

But somehow they could hang on to keep a clean sheet in every occasion. There was no idea what head coach Thambiah Pathmanathan addressed the team in the safe confines of the dressing room during half-time, but the Young Lions came out a different team in the next 45 minutes.

The confidence deserted them. Their assured touches on the ball were no more. Passes were all over the place and often straight to a shirt of another colour.

Experience or no experience in senior level professional game, these players became lost sheep wandering around the turf as their opponents gained in confidence with each passing minute. Why could they not maintain their composed game that had the other team on tenterhooks?

Eventually the Young Lions would wilt under the incessant pressure and leak goals, undoing the fine start they had. They were pretty fortunate to get four points so far, but with tougher opponents awaiting especially in the semi-finals onwards, they are now on very thin ice.

Looking further, the four goals netted so far in the competition all came in the first half. Furthermore, two came from the head of centre-back Safuwan Baharudin, another from Hariss Harun and a Shaiful free kick special.

So what were the forwards doing? Is Khairul Nizam really the next big team he is made up to be? Yes, he is fast and pacy. Yes, he holds the ball and dribbles well.

But no, he is no prolific sharpshooter. In the recently concluded S.League season, he only had six goals for Young Lions, a poor return for any forward. Sure, the service he received at club level was not there, making him having to toil and run against bigger and taller defenders in hope most of the time.

However, in this SEA Games, there is Shaiful with his left foot, Shahdan Sulaiman of Home United pulling the strings as the playmaker and precocious talent Shahfiq Ghani. Fazli Ayob was a revelation on the right wing with his overlapping runs behind the defence.

Shahdan in particular had created several scoring opportunities with his pinpoint forward passes, but bore no fruit for his hard work.

Not only did Nizam seem to have left his scoring boots back in Singapore, his positional discipline as a forward left much to be desired. Already at club and school level, he had displayed a tendency to drift away on the wings, not to dissimilar to his more illustrous step-brother Khairul Amri, thus leaving a gap in the centre of attack.

How about the other forwards in the squad? Fadhil Noh saw too little game time so far to make an impression. Shahfiq, who is better off as an attacking midfielder, is no pacy forward and his inexperience showed in his numerous offsides against Myanmar.

No team is rewarded without maintaining consistency and netting goals, so the team have to pull up their socks if they are to extend their Laos adventure or risk being the first sporting laughing stock in the SEA Games.

Singapore's Involvement in Asian Club Competition 2010

AFC Cup 2010

2009 Singapore Cup champions Geylang United make their return to continental football in six years since their semi-final appearance in the inaugural AFC Cup in 2004.

On Monday's AFC Cup group stage draw held in the AFC House in Kuala Lumpur, the Eagles are drawn into Group H alongside Hong Kong FA Cup winners Tai Po and Thailand FA Cup holders Thai Port. Either Sriwijaya (Indonesia) or Da Nang (Vietnam) will join this group after the AFC Champions League East zone play-offs early next year.

Meanwhile, should S.League champions Singapore Armed Forces FC (SAFFC) fail to navigate the Champions League play-offs, they will end up in either Group F or G.

Confirmed teams drawn into Group F are Victory of Maldives, Vietnamese club Binh Duong and Malaysian Super League champions Selangor, while Indonesian club Persiwa, 2009 AFC Cup semi-finalists South China of Hong Kong and another Maldivian team VB officially make up Group G.

Should Geylang finish among the top two in their group, they will face runners-up or winners from Group F in a one-off round of 16 clash.

The Warriors might have to make a long-distance Middle East journey to face a team from Group E if they are Group G runners-up. It will be more preferable for them to host, but either way, the prospect of an exit at the feet of the Arabs is daunting.

Group E comprises of Al Rifa (Bahrain), Al Nahda (Oman), Al Whidat (Jordan) and the AFC Cup play-off winner. One of the play-off teams,Al Rayyan (Qatar), will take the last slot instead should the FIFA suspension on the Iraqi football association remain upheld, rendering the Iraqi clubs ineligible for competition.

AFC Champions League 2010

Two teams that featured in the group stage in 2009 are facing off each other for the right to continute their participation in this competition.

SAFFC will take on Indonesian Cup winners Sriwijaya at home in the East zone first play-off round on 30 January 2010. The match will also mark the return of Singapore international defender Precious Emuejeraye since his move to the visiting team at the end of the 2009 domestic season.

Should the Warriors succumb despite home advantage, they will proceed to join the other teams in Group G in the AFC Cup.

Win, and they will be at home again against the winners of V-League champions Da Nang and Thailand Premier League winners Muang Thong United (Thailand) to fight for one of two remaining spots at the group stage on 6 February 2010. If they fail, they will move into Group F in the AFC Cup.

The winners of playoff East will be rewarded with a place in Group G where they will take on Chinese Super League outfit Henan Jianye, former Champions League winners Gamba Osaka of Japan and K-League giants Suwon Bluewings.

If the Warriors progress that far to join the group, Suwon coach Cha Beum Kun may end up moaning about "the weather and the pitch" at Jalan Besar once again.

With the draws for the group stages of both Asian club competitions complete, it is now the onus of SAFFC and Geylang United to assemble their squads so that they can compete on both domestic and continental fronts.

The Warriors are now frantically assembling their squad for the 2010 season in the midst of heavy team rebuilding after winning four straight S.League titles under head coach Richard Bok. Before the year is out, we will know who this master tactician will entrust to defend the league title and fly the Singapore flag in the Champions League again.

As for the Eagles, they have more than a month to fine tune their playing roster and get their act together on the pitch. With the additional time afforded to them to submit the squad list by the 30 January deadline, can they provide a first team capable of representing the league in the AFC Cup with honour while improving their league position in the upcoming S.League season?