By Bhas Kunju
A week ago while on StarHub Football Channel's FC Daily, I mentioned that Singapore stood a very good chance against Malaysia in the Suzuki Cup.
My sentiments had not always been the same, just a month earlier I had said that the Lions had a better chance of finishing at the bottom of Group B. This was of course, after Goal.com's extensive coverage of the Suzuki Cup qualifiers, where we witnessed the startling talent of Kyi Lin and his young Myanmar side, a determined Brunei, a tactically well-defined Laos and a Brazillian influenced Timor Leste.
Singapore at that point in time, had won just one international match for the year and with the likes of Malaysia and Indonesia looking formidable, the Lions fate seemed sealed.
So when the dust settled on Saturday night, Singapore were top of Group B, the Group of Death, with Indonesia out of the competition and Malaysia sneaking in in second place.
Going down 2-0 within the first half, the Lions showed exactly what they were capable of. Two bold substitutions just before the stroke of half-time and then the tides turned. A quick deficit reduction from the man earning his 100th cap and then almost right after the restart a second to bring the tie level.
Khairul Amri scored quite possibly one of the best goals of his career, a well-struck free-kick that left the Laotian custodian no chance, and Fazrul Nawaz, so frequently absent on the scoresheet for the Lions grabbed a fourth to make it a comfortable passage. Not even a late dubious penalty would make a difference.
There was one other factor that I had overlooked when making my initial prediction. This was a Singapore team on a mission.
We had Radojko Avramovic who is reportedly overseeing his final tournament for Singapore and the talismanic Aleksandar Duric who has vowed to finally call time on his remarkable and unforgettable career after the Suzuki Cup.
In the likes of the LionsXII players, such as Shahril Ishak, Shahdan Sulaiman and Shaiful Esah we had a group of players who were still hurting from the lack of silverware in their maiden Malaysian League and Cup competitions; not that a runners-up league finish and narrow semi-final exit were anything to overlook.
In Mustafic Fahruddin and Daniel Bennett there are two players who will do anything to make up for the disastrous 2010 campaign.
The list could go on and on.
Malaysia despite their youthful promise have slowly plateued. Surprise defeats to Vietnam, and even more surprising draws at home against Hong Kong and minnows Bangladesh, who had been comfortably dispatched 5-0 by the Thais only a week earlier.
The key reason would be the burden of having been the dominant side in the region the past two years. A gold medal at the South East Asian games last year and the memorable Suzuki Cup triumph of 2010.
Fans have come to expect more of Datok Rajagobal's men. The pressure was already telling in the friendlies and against Singapore the vocal support of their own supporters turned poisonous for them. The same side they had come close to humiliating in June in the Causeway Derby were beating them 3-0 and looking ever so likely to repay their neighbours for the 4-0 home defeat in the same competition exactly 10 years ago.
Indonesia are a side that could go toe-to-toe with the best in the continent. But that would be on paper. Handing out international debuts to players at a major tournament is a no-no but Nil Maizar felt fit to do just that, starting Raphael Maitimo and then being forced to also hand a debut to Wahyu Tri Nugroho after first-choice custodian Endra Prasetya was sent off.
Additionally, Tonnie Cusell had only made his international debut a week earlier in a friendly against Timor Leste. So there we have it, a side that is bursting with talent on paper but as a team had as much as experience and fluidity as a fish in flight.
The semi-finals of course would be a different proposition for Singapore. Twice the Lions lost to the Azkals this year, home and away. Beyond that lie either the mighty Thais or a rematch with the Malaysians. The mission is only past the halfway mark.