SINGAPORE — Irfan Fandi had sounded defiant when he asserted pre-match that the Lions always show up for big matches.
And in what was their toughest match of their AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup campaign so far - against 2018 champions Vietnam - Singapore rose up to the challenge and put up a gallant defensive stand in a 0-0 draw at Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday (30 December).
It was a superb team performance - a far cry from their earlier disjointed displays against Myanmar and Laos - as the Lions stuck resolutely to their game plan and executed it with gritty determination to deny the formidable Vietnam team from scoring.
There were immense Lions all over the pitch, but Irfan and right-back Ryhan Stewart were exemplary of the sheer bloody-mindedness to defy their opponents. But there was also a worrying injury for forward Ilhan Fandi, who trudged off before half-time to the concerned looks of the 5,434-strong fans in the stadium.
The valuable point meant Singapore rise to second in the table behind Vietnam, one point ahead of third-placed Malaysia ahead of their crunch tie in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday. A draw would be enough to send the Lions through to the semi-finals.
Head coach Takayuki Nishigaya, who had insisted that his side would not be defensive during Thursday's pre-match media conference, commended the Lions and the fans for their commitment.
"Although we couldn't find a way to score, it was a great result and we will try to recover and build upon this performance to face Malaysia," he said during the post-match media conference.
Irfan said his teammates fought for one another on the pitch, giving "110 per cent" to deny Vietnam, even as they had to watch his younger brother limp off.
"We are sad for our injured teammates, but we're playing for them as well as us. Everyone rose to the occasion," he said.
Ilhan injury the dark cloud over Lions display
Singapore began the match with a five-man defence line, as wing-backs Christopher van Huizen and Stewart were tucked in on the flanks of the three centre-backs Hariss Harun, Shakir Hamzah and Irfan.
With midfielders Shahdan Sulaiman and M. Anumanthan also stationed at defensive areas, it was left to Faris Ramli, Shah Shahiran and Ilhan to forage for morsels of opportunities.
But while attacking chances were few and far between, the Lions held their defensive shape and succeeded in keeping the marauding Vietnamese attack at bay, restricting them to shots outside the area and half-opportunities during set-pieces.
Just as the Jalan Besar were getting pumped up by the Lions' valiant defensive stand, they fell into hushed silence when Ilhan crumpled onto the ground in the 38th minute clutching his shin and in obvious pain.
Following treatment, he got up gingerly and tried to continue, but just before half-time, he sat down on the pitch and signalled to the bench that he could not carry on. The anxious looks on the bench said it all: it was another big blow to the Lions after injuries to Ikhsan Fandi and Adam Swandi on the same pitch just before the tournament.
Players, goalpost deny Vietnamese from scoring
Frustrated by the Lions' defiance, Vietnam sent on their midfield star Nguyen Quang Hai for the second half in search of a breakthrough. But it was Shah who had the first significant action, registering Singapore's only shot on target when his snap shot outside the box in the 48th minute was saved by Dang Van Lam.
Still Vietnam came in waves, but every time it looked as if they would find a way through, they found a red-jerseyed Singapore player flinging himself to block their attempts. The goalpost also helped to deflect a long-range screamer from Nguyen Hoang Duc in the 84th minute, as Vietnam head coach Park Hang-seo held his head in despair.
In the end, the South Korean might be ruing his decision to rotate eight of his players who played in the previous match against Malaysia, as the Golden Stars took too long to get into their groove.
"Today we didn't manage to win, but we have one more match left, at home to Myanmar," he said in the post-match press conference. "I made the rotations to keep the team fresh for that match, so we will be ready to go for the home win."
For Singapore, however, belief should be coursing through the side that they have a good chance of advancing to the final four. Another strong defensive performance at the Bukit Jalil Stadium, similar to this morale-boosting display, should do the trick.
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