Fandi Ahmad has Singapore dreaming again as Lions see off Indonesia in Suzuki Cup
It was a Friday night in Manila when Indonesia dumped a dismal Singapore out of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup. Two years later, Singapore looked a very different proposition and deservedly defeated Indonesia 1-0 to open the 2018 edition of Southeast Asia's biennial tournament on a high.
A well-taken goal from captain Hariss Harun eight minutes before the break gave most of the 30,000 plus fans a reward for their support. Nobody is getting carried away after just one game of Group B just yet, but Singapore look like Singapore again.
Much of it is down to the return of golden boy Fandi Ahmad to take over as head coach until the end of the tournament. The mere presence of the man who scored 55 times in 101 appearances for his country gave the whole football scene -- one that has been in the doldrums for some time -- a lift.
The fans came back and created an atmosphere in the arena. It wasn't quite the Kallang Roar of days gone by, but it was a welcome improvement from the past when the national stadium looked beautiful but felt soulless.
"It's been so long since we had seen such a good atmosphere," noted Fandi. "We are delighted the fans came down. These three points are very crucial. What a relief for Singapore football."
Playing an unpredictable Indonesia in the opening game was a tricky fixture. This is a team that could go all the way to the final -- they've done that in five of their last nine appearances -- or crash out in the first round, as has been the case in all but one of the other four. Under new coach Bima Sakti, they were second best here, though, and did not really get going.
Perhaps Fandi did not allow them to get going? Everyone knew the appointment of the former forward would give fans, media, officials and players in Singapore an instant lift in terms of motivation and energy, but his tactics and approach were spot on too.
Singapore are at their best when they embrace their identity: physicality, aggression and hard work. There was all that and more on display here. With a 4-2-3-1 formation that worked well, the Reds were superior to Indonesia in every department. The hosts harried and hustled and ensured Indonesia's wingers had little time or space when receiving the ball. As a result, there was little supply to the experienced and dangerous Brazilian-born striker Beto Goncalves.
Coach Bima complimented the Lions, saying: "The Singapore team have good organisation and good transition from defence to attack. That created big problems for us."
Singapore' s major complaint will be scoring just the one goal. Gabriel Quak seemed to be enjoying himself and it was the winger's cross that led to the goal. In the middle, Hariss was the driving force and at the back, the Lions were organised with goalkeeper Hassan Sunny his usual composed self. Indonesia, as you would expect, pushed forward in the closing stages, but the hosts looked solid and unruffled.
Such is the tightness of the five-team group -- only the top two progress to the last four -- that Indonesia are now up against it. There can be no more slip-ups.
Tuesday is certain to bring a home win over Timor Leste in Jakarta -- they lost 7-0 to Thailand last time out -- but then the team are going to have to go to Bangkok and get a result against the defending champions. Lose that and the final home game against the Philippines will likely not be the crucial decider that many had expected.
For Singapore, they go to the Philippines on Tuesday -- the site of their demise two years ago -- full of confidence. A win, and that will be far from easy, would put the Lions top of the group and on the brink of the last four. Once there, anything can happen as four trophies from five knockout stage appearances shows.
There is still lots of time, travel and games to be played before that but Singapore have demonstrated they are a force to be reckoned with.
Fandi seems to have let Singapore be Singapore again. The city-state's golden boy put more than the smiles back on the faces of fans and players ... he has them believing the Lions can dine at Southeast Asia's top table once more.