Newly-kitted Singapore give Vietnam opening blues
Theng Wai Mun
Khairul Amri (in blue), part of Singapore's strikeforce against Vietnam.
A show of strength by the Singapore backline frustrated Vietnam’s title aspirations as the teams played out a 0-0 draw on the second day of the Asean Football Championship.
The result leaves both Group B teams two points adrift of Indonesia, who overcame a one-goal deficit at half-time to run out 3-1 winners over Laos.
Singapore’s credentials as defending champions may not have received an emphatic affirmation, after a match where the hosts’ scoring chances were few and far between.
But at least a solid rearguard performance ensured a shutout against an aggressive Vietnam side, thereby laying a key foundation for the Lions’ title defence.
Singapore coach Radojko Avramovic surprised opposite number Alfred Riedl by keeping ace striker Indra Sahdan on the bench, after claiming earlier that the 27-year-old was fully fit and ready to go.
Khairul Amri and Noh Alam Shah thus started together up front, as the Lions, decked out in their new all-blue strip, lined up against a Vietnam team playing in all-white.
The sight made for an odd contrast with the scene in the stands, where only the flags and banners helped in differentiating between Singaporean red and Vietnamese red.
On the field, Singapore looked sharper than their opponents early in the game, with Shahril Ishak particularly involved on the left flank.
The Lions had a penalty call waved away nine minutes in, when Amri appeared to have been elbowed by a Vietnam defender while challenging for the ball.
Another chance to take the lead beckoned in the 18th minute, when Ridhuan Muhammad triggered a Singapore counterattack with a good pass down the right for Alam Shah.
The 26-year-old shot for glory from a tight angle and unfortunately found the side netting, having failed to spot Amri, who was calling for the ball from an unmarked central position.
While it would be easy on hindsight to criticize Alam Shah’s selfish decision, at least it came in the midst of a bright first half for a Singapore team that produced the chances.
As the game wore on, however, Vietnam gradually found their feet on the wings, where they were keen to use their speed to test Daniel Bennett and S. Subramani.
34-year-old Subramani showed that his lack of pace was not necessarily a concern, as he formed an effective partnership with Precious Emuejeraye, himself not known to be the fastest of centrebacks.
Positional sense and physical prowess proved to be useful tools against Vietnam, for whom Thach Bao Khanh and Le Cong Vinh offered limited threats down the left side.
The right flank was somewhat more promising initially, as Bennett showed a tendency to stray out of his usual position, letting Le Tan Tai and Huynh Quang Thanh come in to deliver crosses or low passes.
But Singapore were rarely in danger of conceding from that flank either, thanks largely to the imposing presence of goalkeeper Lionel Lewis, who plucked the balls out of the air with great authority.
Vietnam nonetheless remained undeterred, and stepped up their game in the second half as they put on an increasingly aggressive stance.
Nguyen Minh Phuong came closest to giving his team the lead with a 51st-minute shot from long range, although Lewis was relieved to see it sail just over the bar.
Singapore were not always in defensive mode, though, and Alam Shah could have had a clear run on goal from Amri’s clever pass just after the hour mark but for the offside flag.
Shi Jiayi was also adding to the pressure by taking a few long-range shots, while Itimi Dickson, coming on for Ridhuan midway through the second half, also added to the team’s creative presence.
But the Lions almost fell behind in the 76th minute, when an overhead pass aimed for Vietnam’s Phan Thanh Binh set him up for a clash with Aide Iskandar.
Phan steered the ball into the net from the edge of the box after beating both Aide and Lewis, but the effort was disallowed for a foul on Aide, who required treatment as a result of the collision.
The incident affected Riedl’s players as they seemed to fade slightly in attack, even though they continued to trade blows with the Singapore team as both sides sought to break the deadlock late on.
In the end, though, neither goalkeeper had any meaningful challenge to deal with, and Singapore ended the night on an even footing with Vietnam in a race for semifinal places.
Avramovic considers draw ‘fair’
Singapore national coach Radojko Avramovic called Saturday evening’s stalemate with Vietnam as “a fair result”, noting that the team remains on course to reach the semifinals.
The match ended goalless despite the effort put in by both sets of players in attack, as defence proved the common strong point in the encounter.
Nonetheless, Avramovic noted that the two teams made a genuine effort to play attacking football with the intention to win the game, as he believed should always be the case.
“In football, we must always try to win games, and I think we tried,” said the 57-year-old.
“It was a good quality game, although in the end we did not use our chances. That came back and turned against us towards the end when Vietnam attacked.
“But both teams tried to win the game, and both teams deserve something. So I think, although neither coach is happy with one point, a draw is a fair result.”
Avramovic showed particular pleasure with Singapore’s general success in maintaining a compact unit, an area he had identified as vital in the buildup to the Championship.
Praising his players for improving on their earlier showings, he noted that the onus is now on them to secure a semifinals berth by beating Laos and Indonesia.
“The players have done a good job in keeping a compact team shape,” said the Serbian.
“I have said that the Vietnam players are really fast in attack, but our team did much better today against them than we did in the King’s Cup in Thailand. I think the team has hit 90% of our objective.
“The remaining 10% depends on game factors. We cannot be perfect; there will always be mistakes, whether in defence or attack.
“But that’s part of the game, and we accept that. What is important is that at least we still can qualify, although it all depends on ourselves.”
Singapore: Lionel Lewis, S. Subramani, Precious Emuejeraye, Aide Iskandar, Daniel Bennett, Ridhuan Muhammad (Itimi Dickson 64), Mustafic Fahrudin, Shi Jiayi, Shahril Ishak, Noh Alam Shah (Fazrul Nawaz 90), Khairul Amri (Indra Sahdan 75).
Vietnam: Bui Quang Huy, Huynh Quang Thanh, Vu Nhu Thanh, Nguyen Huy Hoang, Nguyen Van Bien, Le Tan Tai, Nguyen Minh Phuong, Le Hong Minh (Tran Duc Duong 77), Thach Bao Khanh (Phung Van Nhien 70), Le Cong Vinh (Dang Phuong Nam 90), Phan Thanh Binh.