Taking a bite out of the Group of Death

Posted on October 20, 2011

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Two weeks ago, the news that the Young Lions have landed in the ‘Group of Death’ at the SEA Games might well have been greeted with naked dread. After all, they had gone nine games without a win in the S.League, the availability of key players for the Games was up in the air and their chief striker Khairul Nizam has been injured or suspended for much of this year.

Young Lions striker Khairul Nizam

His absence and the lack of a ready alternative has been a glaring weakness in the S.League, where before last weekend the Young Lions had netted just 25 goals in 28 games. In a friendly tournament in Ho Chi Minh City, the results were no better – the Young Lions lost 2-0 to Qatar’s Aspire Academy’s U19 team, 3-0 to a South Korean University selection and 2-1 to Vietnam U23.

In football though, circumstances can turn as quickly as a Zidane pirouette. Now, the prospect of getting out of a group containing hosts Indonesia, 13-time SEA Games football gold medalists Thailand and the reigning Games football champ Malaysia appears a tough proposition, but not a daunting one.

The change has been one of mood: before last week, they were goal-shy, uncertain and a team that had seemingly forgotten how to win. Then came two victories in a week, and eight goals to go with them. Suddenly, the Young Lions appear to have found their bite.

Sure, five of those goals came against the S.League’s bottom side Woodlands Wellington. And yes, the Thailand U23 team they defeated 3-2 at the start of the week wasn’t at full strength. But neither were the Young Lions, missing six players away with the senior national team. With the two wins came the oh-so-important return of confidence. As the Young Lions piled en masse on Shahfiq Ghani after his remarkable injury-time winner against the Thais, letting loose primal screams that spoke volumes of their bottled frustrations, one could see that they had recovered the meaning and the means of being a winner.

Victory over the Thais and the hammering of Woodlands sparked recall of the Young Lions’ pedigree as bronze medalists at the last two SEA Games. It made public expectations of an improvement on the showings in Korat and Vientiane not seem outlandish, despite the challenging draw.

And going by the comments of some of the Jakarta-bound Young Lions, it’s clear they know it’s time to step up, that they will have to bear the onus of victory against more illustrious opponents at any stage if they are serious about making it to the final. Captain Hariss Harun presented the most lucid vision when he said: “If you’re looking to improve Singapore football, we have to look to get something more than a bronze.”

Keeper Izwan Mahbud spoke of the belief the Young Lions will need to draw on, to have coursing through their veins: “I know it is not the easiest of groups but we should be ready to face whichever team comes along. I feel that we should believe in our own team and prepare ourselves for the tournament. That is the most important thing of all.” Defender Afiq Yunos added: “It will be a tough group but interesting as well. This is a major tournament for the U23s and I feel that we have been preparing well enough and it is now time to focus and show what we can do on the pitch.”

While the uplift in spirit has been most welcome, Young Lions coach Slobodan Pavkovic and the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) still have obstacles to overcome. The FAS is waiting on an appeal to defer the national service callups of Zulfahmi Arifin, a likely starter in central midfield, and Nazrul Nazari, who will challenge Gabriel Quek for a place on the left wing. A number of other players, including the main man in defence Safuwan Baharudin, require clearance from national service commitments to travel to Jakarta as well.

For Pavkovic, the challenge is to do all he can to mould a cohesive starting eleven in the 20 days that remain to the Games. The six players that have spent much of the past four months with the senior national team in their World Cup qualifying campaign have to be re-integrated into the Young Lions lineup, while captain and midfield lynchpin Hariss (national service) and frontman Khairul Nizam have not seen much competitive action in the last two months.

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