SINGAPORE — They had hoped to nab a shock win over the defending champions, but on Halloween night on Sunday (31 October), the Singapore national Under-22 side endured a horror show at Jalan Besar Stadium, thrashed 1-5 by South Korea in their Asian Football Confederation (AFC) U-23 Asian Cup qualifier.
Down 0-2 within six minutes and 0-4 by half-time, the Young Lions had no answer for the swift and incisive attacks of their formidable opponents, no matter how hard they tried to pressure the opposition.
Had the Koreans not eased off in the second half, Singapore could have succumbed to a bigger loss that could have dropped them embarrassingly into third place behind Timor-Leste in Group H.
"We were one or two steps slower than the Koreans in the first half," admitted head coach Nazri Nasir after the match.
"But it's a learning process for the boys, given that they have not had any international matches amid the pandemic. By the second half, I think the boys understood what they have to do to match up with the best teams in Asia."
The Young Lions had started their qualifying campaign with an underwhelming 2-2 draw against Timor-Leste on Monday, before a stunning Glenn Kweh strike gave them a hard-earned 1-0 win over the Philippines on Thursday and put them in second spot, with a shot at qualifying for next year's tournament.
On the other hand, South Korea had little trouble beating the Philippines 3-0 in their opening qualifier, before thrashing Timor-Leste 6-0 in their next to go top of the group.
Timor-Leste had finished third in the group after a 1-0 victory over the Philippines in an earlier tie on Sunday. And with the result against the group's fourth-placed team not considered for the rankings of the second-placed teams, the Young Lions knew before the match that they would need an unlikely victory over the Koreans to stand a chance of qualification.
Within six minutes of kick-off, dreams a shock win were quickly extinguished when the Koreans stormed into a 2-0 lead with apparent ease.
Despite trotting out a defensive 5-3-2 formation, Nazri Nasir's men somehow let an innocuous cross from the right flank by Cho Sang-jun in the third minute roll all the way to an unsuspecting forward Kim Chan, who looked almost sheepish to have scored such an easy goal.
Three minutes later, the Young Lions' defence was breached far too easily again, as a simple through pass set Cho away to slot home South Korea's second goal.
The two killer blows robbed whatever bravado the Young Lions had to stun their formidable opponents, and they struggled to fend off the Koreans from then on.
It was 3-0 for the visitors after 24 minutes, when captain Jacob Mahler accidentally bundled Park Jeon-gin's shot over the goal-line before goalkeeper Ridhwan Fikri could claw it out. Five minutes before half-time, Park was on hand to tap home another cross from the right to make it 4-0.
When right-back Choi Jun slammed home South Korea's fifth goal in the 52nd minute, the 993-strong crowd feared a massive, demoralising rout was imminent, with Singapore unable to offer any sustained resistance against the rampant Koreans.
Yet, from out of nowhere, the crowd found their voice again after a consolation goal of stunning brilliance from left-back Nur Adam Abdullah.
The Lion City Sailors player, who won the Singapore Premier League Young Player of the Year earlier this month, latched onto a loose ball in the Korean half, and unleashed a curling shot from outside the penalty area that flew past goalkeeper Lee Gwang-yeon and bounced in off the right post.
That goal at least injected a fresh impetus into the Young Lions, as they defended with far more determination to stem the tide of Korean attacks, and saw out the match without any more goals conceded.
"I'll take heart for my boys' second-half performance, and I hope they understand the requirements to be competitive against the top sides in Asia," Nazri said.
A total of 11 groups are currently contesting in the U-23 Asian Cup qualifiers, with the final tournament to be held in Uzbekistan in June 2022.
Stay in the know on-the-go: Join Yahoo Singapore's Telegram channel at http://t.me/YahooSingapore