By Kenneth Tan
Singapore fans would not want to remember the 2010 edition of the AFF Suzuki Cup in a hurry.
Successive triumphs in 2004 and 2007 and a semi-final finish in 2008 meant no one, even their harshest critics, predicted this – a journey that only lasted three group matches.
15 players from the 2008 squad were retained with minor changes made to the starting eleven - Shahril Ishak succeeded retired golden boy Indra Sahdan as skipper, electric forwards Khairul Amri and Fazrul Nawaz were recalled after recovering from injuries, while solid young defender Safuwan Baharudin got a spot.
Young Shahdan Sulaiman also took over the role of playmaker from the injured Shi Jiayi while Hassan Sunny earned a starting spot over Lionel Lewis in the goalkeeping category.
They were placed in Group B, a group that they arguably should have qualified from – other than holders and hosts Vietnam, Philippines and Myanmar should have been easier meat for the Lions.
However they never really got it going throughout this unexpected short-lived tournament.
It started all from the first game against the Philippines, an uprising side with the likes of former Chelsea trainees James and Phil Younghusband upfront.
However it was at the back where Fulham goalkeeper Neil Etheridge kept the Lions at bay with several impressive saves.
Aleksandar Duric did break the deadlock on 65 minutes but a last-gasp Chris Greatwich finish from a defensive lapse saw the never-say-die Azkals earning an unlikely point and eventually clinching a runners-up spot in the group.
Next up was Myanmar, considered the easiest opponents of all, however, once again the Lions’ carelessness at the back saw them conceding a similar goal in the first game – with Khin Maung Lwin nipping in front of a slack marker to slot past Hassan on 13 minutes.
Fortunately the second-half introduction of Agu Casmir proved a treat – setting up Duric to slot home just past the hour mark before the latter returned the favor for the Nigerian-born frontman to slam home the winner four minutes into injury time.
Scrapping past the Burmese set Singapore up nicely for the final showdown against Vietnam where they only need a point to qualify.
However just like the 2008 semi-final, it was the Viets who prevailed by a solitary goal and eventually qualified at the expense of the Lions.
The winning goal came via a lethal counter-attacking move from a Singapore corner where Nguyen Vu Phong nipped just ahead of Hassan to slot home.
Despite the hosts being reduced to ten men for the last half hour, the Lions were unable to capitalize as they were left to lick their paws at the final whistle – only the third time they had failed to get out of the group stage.
Meanwhile over in Group A. it was Malaysia who did a ‘Vietnam 2008’ by proving that losing the first game is not everything.
The situation looked bleak for the Tigers when they were thrashed 5-1 by eventual group winners Indonesia in the opener, however they recovered well with a draw against Thailand and a 5-1 thrashing of Laos that saw them earn enough points to scrape into the next stage as runners-up.
Three-time winners Thailand were also dumped out in stunning fashion with two late Bambang Pamungkas goals that saw them slumped to a 1-2 defeat in a must-win last game against Indonesia.
The semi-finals saw Malaysia paired with Vietnam while Indonesia faced off against dark horses Philippines, with both Group A teams making it to the final.
A Safee Sali brace in the first leg was sufficient for the Tigers who then grinded out a goalless draw in Hanoi to go through, while a Cristian Gonzales goal in each leg saw the Merah Putih extinguishing the Azkals’ dreams.
Thus the final was a great opportunity for both sides to claim their first ever regional triumph – with Malaysia reaching the first final since the inaugural edition in 1996 while Indonesia were losing finalists in 2000, 2002 and 2004.
The first leg was played at the National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur. With the 5-1 group defeat still fresh in their minds, it was Malaysia who paid the sweetest revenge of sorts.
Three goals in 12 minutes, including a brace from red-hot Safee, saw the Tigers clinching an almost unassailable advantage ahead of the second leg.
Indeed it was – and they even managed to put the icing on the cake with eventual tournament Golden Boot winner Safee racing on to a Ashaari Shamsuddin through ball and slamming in a thunderous finish past Markus Horison on 54 minutes.
That goal silenced the sellout Gelora Bung Karno crowd. Although the hosts managed to overturn the match with a Mohd Nasusha tap-in and a Muhd Ridwan deflected goal, the deficit proved too much for them.
Eventually it was the Tigers who achieved their historic first AFF Cup triumph and went home USD $100,000 richer for their exploits.
That sparked this current period of dominance for the Malaysians, whose under-23s also picked up the gold medal at last year’s SEA Games.
Meanwhile for the Lions, the repercussions were huge – with media outlets blasting the Lions’ performances as ‘poor’ and the 22-men squad was disbanded as what seemed like a knee-jerk reaction from the FA.
So far there has been few bright spots for the men in red in the last couple of years and they will hope to make amends at this upcoming tournament.