Izwan brilliant as Singapore hold mighty Japan in World Cup Qualifying
Izwan Mahbud put on a goalkeeping masterclass to help Singapore hold Asian giants Japan to a 0-0 draw in their 2018 World Cup qualifier at the Saitama Stadium on Tuesday night.
On the night of the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games closing ceremony, the Lions produced a courageous performance to stun Japan's new head coach Vahid Halihodzic in his first competitive match and leave a crowd of more than 55,000 shocked.
Singapore now sit top of Group E on four points after negotiating their two away games with a 4-0 win against Cambodia last Thursday to go with the draw in Japan. Syria and Afghanistan are the other nations in the pool.
It was an uninspiring performance from the Samurai Blue against a team 102 places below them in the world rankings. Bernd Stange's Lions frustrated the hosts who simply could not find a way past the brilliant Izwan in goal.
Things did look ominous for the visitors when Keisuke Honda thumped a 15-yard shot in the third minute which needed two attempts before Izwan finally gathered.
Shinji Kagawa was next to threaten on 12 minutes. But his shot was tipped out for a corner by Izwan, who was always predicted to be Singapore's busiest player on the night.
Japan captain Makoto Hasebe led by example as he drove down the middle of the park, but it was Kagawa's failure in finding his shooting range that proved costly. Two attempts in quick succession failed to trouble Izwan in goal.
Singapore finally broke out of their half when Zulfahmi Arifin found space just outside the box. The young midfielder opted to shoot despite the shouts from Khairul Amri who'd made an intelligent run.
Japan's best chance of the half fell to Shinji Okazaki after some good work between Usami Takashi and Honda. But the home fans couldn't believe their eyes when Izwan pulled off a superb save to keep things level.
Stange was visibly elated as both teams walked at half-time while his counterpart Halihodzic had a pensive look after Japan's dismal showing.
The Japanese started the second half in determined fashion, with Usami taking a couple of early pot shots.
Izwan was the hero again on 55 minutes when Ota Kasuke's pinpoint cross was met by an Okazaki header. Once again, the Singapore custodian pulled off an instinctive save to deny the hosts.
Halihodzic saw enough and stunned the Saitama crowd when he took off Borussia Dortmund's Kagawa and brought on FC Koln's Yuya Osako.
The Izwan versus Japan battle continued in the 63rd minute when the keeper foiled Usami's cross-shot as a restless Japanese bench looked more tense by the minute.
Another one-handed save three minutes later, off Honda's powerful header from an Ota corner saw the AC Milan man let out a big scream of frustration.
Nothing seemed to go right for the Samurai Blue as Honda's 72nd minute free kick cannoned off the post. Izwan was on hand to save Usami's meek shot from the rebound.
When Iraqi referee Mohanad Sarray blew the final whistle, he left the Japan team and fans shell-shocked. The 154th ranked Singapore players punched the air in delight in what felt like a victory for the underdogs from Southeast Asia.
After their disappointing AFC Asian Cup in January when they were knocked out in the quarterfinals, the Japanese are still searching for answers.
Japan: Eiji Kawashima (GK), Ota Kasuke, Hiroki Sakai, Makino Tomoaki, Maya Yoshida, Makoto Hasebe (C), Usami Takashi (Yoshinori Muto 78'), Gaku Shibasaki (Genki Haraguchi 70'), Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa (Yuya Osako 61'), Shinji Okazaki
Singapore: Izwan Mahbud (GK), Shaiful Esah, Baihakki Khaizan (Firdaus Kasman 80'), Madhu Mohana, Nazrul Nazari, Zulfahmi Arifin, Hariss Harun, Izzdin Shafiq, Hafiz Sujad, Fazrul Nawaz (Yasir Hanapi 90+1'), Khairul Amri (Khairul Nizam 85')