UZBEKISTAN 1 SINGAPORE 0
I don’t know what Raddy Avramovic did behind closed doors with his demoralised, bruised and battered Lions in the five days since that 3-7 thrashing at the National Stadium last Monday. But whatever it was, it brought out a top-class performance by the Lions tonight.
Singapore may have lost 0-1 tonight, a cruel result, no thanks to a tap-in from close range by Uzbek midfielder Alexander Geynrink in the 82nd minute.
Nevertheless, the Lions’ battling and tenacious display tonight will not only go a long way in repairing damaged reputations but also in instilling a new sense of confidence in the squad as it now prepares for next Saturday’s must-win match against Saudi Arabia at the National Stadium.
While it was fact that it was almost the same losing line-up that took to the field in Taskhent’s MHSK Stadium tonight, it was a Singapore side that bore no resemlance at all to the one that was ripped apart by the maurading Uzbeks last Monday.
Far from looking like a deer caught in the headlights, tonight’s Singapore team was one brimming with defensive discipline, spirit, determination and composure.
Kudos in particular to defenders Precious Emuerajaye and Baihakki Khaizan. Pilloried by the media for their abysmal peformances last Monday, they responded to their critics in the best possible way by holding strong and firm against the Uzbek tidal wave of attacks.
Kudos too to goalkeeper Lionel Lewis who, after looking like he could not even catch a joke last Monday, turned in an assured and commanding performance in goal tonight.
In fact, all of Avramovic’s men played as though they had liquid steel coursing in their veins tonight – and in the process, caught the initially complacent and over-confident Uzbeks off-guard.
I strongly suspect that Raddy went back to the original plan that Singapore initally had for the Uzbeks, (which, as a reader pointed out, they seemed to have shelved after that Bahrain friendly ) and that is, to play a tight, patient and pressing game and to catch Uzbekistan on the counter-attack or during set-pieces.
And for 81 minutes tonight, it worked.
Boosted by the return of skipper Indra Sahdan who added an extra bite to Singapore’s attack, the Lions were clearly the better side in the first half. Not only did they force Uzbek goalkeeper Ignatiiy Nesterov into making three saves, they even very nearly scored in the 35th minute when Aleksandar Duric agonisingly shot past the post after receiving a knock-down header from Khairul Amri in the box.
And as all this happened, disbelieving Uzbekistan found itself reduced to taking long-range shots at Lionel Lewis’ goal after finding the Singapore defence too tight to breach, and leaving the pitch to wolf-whistles from their own fans.
The second-half, however, was a more nail-biting affair for Singapore.
Wizened Uzbek coach Rauf Ilineev turned the team formation into a more attacking one, and Singapore increasingly found itself under pressure as the Uzbeks started to pin the Lions back in their own half and continuously carpet-bomb their goal.
Such was the growing intensity and frequency of the Uzbek attack, such were the number of alarmingly close shaves for goalkeeper Lewis, that there was a growing sense that Singapore’s luck in holding out would eventually run out.
It finally did – in the 82nd minute when defender Isa Halim, who, until then, had put in a magnificent performance standing in for the suspended Mohamed Noh Rahman, tried to clear a cross and ended up heading it onto Geynrink’s path.
And as the Uzbek midfielder did what his compatriot Maksim Shatskikh could not do twice from close range, and rifled the ball past the despairing Lewis into the net, one could practically hear the Lions’ heart breaking into a million pieces.
But credit to the Lions for not giving up. Even though the Uzbeks continued to pin them back in their half after scoring, they almost managed to score from a rare counter-attack in the 89th minute when Duric headed midfielder Shi JIa Yi’s cross straight at the keeper.
Four minutes later, it was all over.
The result means that Uzbekistan has now almost certainly clinched its ticket into the final round of World Cup qualification. Its perfect record of four wins in the Asia Zone Group Four competition means that it is virually impossible for any of the other remaining contenders – Singapore or Saudi Arabia – to topple the former Russian republic from the top of the table.
Of the two, it looks like Saudi Arabia will take the second qualification spot. Currently second with six points (two wins and a defeat), it is expected to beat Lebannon tonight after an easy 4-1win last week to increase the gap between it and Singapore to six points. It also has a superior goal difference to Singapore.
But even then, it is not game over yet for Singapore. Mathematically, that is. Correct me if I am wrong, but the Lions can still make it into the next round if
a. Saudi Arabia loses, draws or beats Lebannon by a narrow margin tonight
b. Singapore beats the Saudis at the National Stadium next Saturday;
c. Singapore hammers a bagful of goals against Lebannon in its final group match while Saudi Arabia loses to Uzbekistan.
In the meantime, the Lions can now fly home from Tashkent with their heads held high, knowing that they have done both themselves and their fans proud.
Yours in sport
Singapore Sports Fan