Lions improve with 1-1 draw against India, but yet to find identity under Nishigaya
Even as Ikhsan Fandi underlined his importance to the Lions with his 17th international goal on his 32nd cap, Singapore's 1-1 draw with India on Saturday raised more questions than answers.
After the dispiriting 4-0 defeat by hosts Vietnam on Wednesday, Singapore coach Takayuki Nishigaya made four changes to his starting XI while retaining the same 3-5-2 formation at the Thong Nhat Stadium in Ho Chi Minh City.
In came centre-back Irfan Fandi, right wing-back Ryhan Stewart, and forward Hazzuwan Halim and Ikhsan Fandi, and there was a more stable look about the defence and more of an edge up front.
But after a bright start, it was Lions goalkeeper Hassan Sunny who had to be alert on his 100th international appearance to keep out Liston Colaco's 25-metre shot in the 19th minute.
At the other end, Ikhsan provided the rare focal point for the Lions in open play, and his header off Shah Shahiran's cross six minute later was blocked by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu at the near post.
The 23-year-old striker was not to be denied when he blasted in a free-kick off Jeakson Singh Thounaojam to give Singapore the lead in the 37th minute.
But the advantage lasted just six minutes when M. Anumanthan carelessly gave the ball away in midfield, which eventually led to Ashique Kuruniyan slotting in the equaliser.
On paper, the result is a decent one considering the gulf in rankings between world No. 159 Singapore and 104th-placed India, who qualified for the 2023 Asian Cup, as the Lions prepare for the Dec 20-Jan 16 Asean Football Federation Championship.
But in truth, Igor Stimac's side were equally uninspiring, and even then, Singapore were unable to keep their first clean sheet in six games under Nishigaya or be more clinical in attack.
In the end, they had Hassan to thank for a flying stop to deny Ashique and a smart save against Sunil Chhetri early in the second half to claim the draw.
With Safuwan Baharudin still out with a concussion, there is a hole to be filled alongside Hariss Harun and Irfan if the Lions persist with a back three, and Joshua Pereira, on his second cap, did his chances no harm with a composed and combative performance.
In front of them, the central midfield of Adam Swandi, Shah Shahiran and Anumanthan were hardworking but unspectacular. Overall, movement with the ball was not quick or inventive enough, while without it, the closing down of opponents was not as tight as the coaches wanted.
From the wide positions, Nazrul Nazari and Stewart did not provide enough service to the front two as Hazzuwan and Ikhsan tried their best to be a nuisance to India's defence.
In the absence of deep-lying playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman due to illness, the quality from set-pieces and long passes was lacking, and while Nishigaya simply has not had enough time to work with his team, the Lions just did not show the identity, passing patterns and combinations that were at least evident in predecessor Tatsuma Yoshida's first year in charge.
This is perhaps the reason he has to experiment now and blood youngsters such as Glenn Kweh with an eye for the future, before seeing if the likes of Shakir Hamzah, Song Ui-young, Zulfahmi Arifin, Faris Ramli, Gabriel Quak and Shahdan can rediscover their form and fitness before he decides on his AFF Championship squad.
Meanwhile, Malaysia, who are widely expected to be Singapore's keenest rivals for an AFF Championship semi-final spot, beat defending champions Thailand 5-3 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the King's Cup on Thursday.
With three months to go to the regional tournament, and limited opportunities to assemble the national team again, time is a luxury the Lions do not have.