SINGAPORE – Up till the 65th minute, with the score at 1-1, the Lions matched record seven-time South-east Asian champions Thailand, and even had opportunities to beat them for the first time since 2012.
But this proved to be a mirage in their World Cup qualifier at the National Stadium on Nov 21.
The Thais prevailed 3-1 to keep alive their hopes of progressing from Group C with three points from two games, while Singapore’s chances looked in tatters after two straight losses.
The crucial difference was Thailand’s superior strength in depth.
Their coach Alexandre Polking had the luxury of calling on the region’s best striker – 35-year-old Teerasil Dangda – to combine with forward and Belgian side OH Leuven loanee Suphanat Mueanta, 21, when the chips were down.
Polking said: “We joke about Teerasil being an old horse, but what a horse he is. He was out for a month, can play only 30 minutes, and he needed just one minute on the pitch to control and pass for Suphanat to give us the lead.
“This is beautiful for a coach to see, and he is the best striker I have seen as a coach.
“Also, Suphanat has improved so much since he went to the Belgian league. Look at his body, he is so strong like a machine.
“I killed him playing him on the right wing, but he proved himself defending and attacking and with the quality of his finishing.”
The Thais, who started with seven pairs of fresh legs after their 2-1 loss to China in Bangkok on Nov 16, took a fifth-minute lead through Supachok Sarachat.
He had already tested Lions custodian Hassan Sunny in the first minute before capitalising on slack marking to side-foot in the opener.
The signs looked ominous for the hosts, who made three changes from their 5-0 loss in Seoul on Nov 16, as midfielder Shahdan Sulaiman hobbled off injured and was replaced by Shawal Anuar in the 20th minute.
By the 40th minute, Hassan had to make at least three more saves as the visitors looked to run riot.
With about 2,500 Thailand fans making their presence felt as their team delighted with their free-flowing football, the Singapore supporters among the 29,644-strong crowd had to be content with finding joy through the Kallang Wave as Ilhan Fandi chased lost causes as the lone striker.
But the tide turned in one moment of brilliance in the 41st minute.
Collecting a Lionel Tan pass from the back, skipper Hariss Harun pinged an inch-perfect pass to Ilhan.
He trapped the ball brilliantly and sent Song Ui-young clear on the left to square for Shawal to equalise with his 11th goal on his 33rd international appearance, despite Thai goalkeeper Kampon Phatomakkakul getting a hand to the ball.
Shawal Anuar celebrates after equalising for Singapore in the 41st minute. PHOTO: The Straits Times
Singapore, who had lost their previous six matches to Thailand by an aggregate score of 11-1, did well to create opportunities for a shock lead as Song had efforts that were blocked or scuffed.
But 65th-minute substitute Teerasil and Suphanat combined the following minute for the latter’s goal.
Suphanat, the half-brother of Supachok, completed his brace after an 87th-minute counter-attack.
On the other hand, other than Shawal’s enforced introduction, Takayuki Nishigaya’s substitutions did not work.
Thailand regained the lead five minutes after midfielder Hami Syahin replaced Ilhan, while Ikhsan Fandi, Christopher van Huizen and Zulfahmi Arifin were quiet after coming on in the 77th minute.
Nishigaya said: “We had a plan at 1-1 to keep the scores even and put the pressure on our opponents to break their balance.
“Unfortunately that worked against us. We thank the fans for their great support, and we are disappointed we could not produce the results they want.”
Nishigaya, who was appointed in April 2022 on a two-year contract, does not know if he will still be Lions coach for Singapore’s next match – a home game against China on March 21.
He said: “I don’t know if I will be in charge in March, but I’m fully committed if I am.”
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.