Lions thumped 4-0 by Vietnam in international friendly
This may have been an international friendly in which both coaches fielded experimental sides. But the gulf between Singapore and Asean's best still showed in a 4-0 defeat by hosts Vietnam on Wednesday.
It was clear that Vietnam coach Park Hang-seo and his Singapore counterpart Takayuki Nishigaya wanted to evaluate their options before their Asean Football Federation Championship Group B clash on Dec 30, as each started seven players with fewer than 15 caps.
For Singapore, this meant Ryaan Sanizal earned his second cap in a makeshift central defence alongside captain Hariss Harun and M. Anumanthan, with 14-cap Hafiz Nor playing at right wing-back.
Joshua Pereira received his first cap as part of an inexperienced central midfield trio featuring Adam Swandi (14 caps) and Shah Shahiran (five caps), while Taufik Suparno and Ilhan Fandi - both with three caps - were deployed up front.
For the first 30 minutes, the world No. 159 visitors did well to restrict their 97th-ranked opponents, as both teams struggled to keep possession. During this period, Hariss shot straight at goalkeeper Dang Van Lam, while Ilhan headed over from Shah's nicely whipped free-kick.
But soon, Vietnam - Asean's highest-ranked team who had lost just once in 21 matches against South-east Asian rivals since Park took over in 2017 - served a reminder of the gulf in quality.
Nham Man Dung had already headed wide from Phan Tuan Tai's 36th-minute cross after the Lions had been careless in possession, but the warning was unheeded and Nguyen Van Quyet opened the scoring from range in the next minute.
Singapore's loose defending and Vietnam's individual brilliance re-surfaced five minutes after the restart, when Ho Tan Tai was given time to cross from the right wing. While Hassan Sunny did well to palm the ball out to the other flank, substitute Nguyen Thanh Nhan strode forward to fire home an angled drive on his international debut.
More slack marking ensued as Ho was allowed to head in another substitute Phan Van Duc's pick-out in the 71st minute, before fellow sub Khuat Van Khang compounded the Lions' misery 13 minutes later by sliding in on the dawdling Hariss to also score on his first cap.
Nishigaya is right when he said the Lions can improve only by playing better teams and he was brave enough to arrange and accept matches against Vietnam and India, both of whom have qualified for the Asian Cup.
His squad selection has also been limited by illness, injuries and personal issues.
However, it still felt a bit suicidal to field such an inexperienced side against a team of Vietnam's prowess, and not play established names such as Irfan and Ikhsan Fandi at all.
In the absence of proven leaders in midfield and attack, the team looked lost and eventually the inadequacies filtered through to the back, where Hariss alone is not enough to carry Anumanthan, who is normally a midfielder, and international greenhorn Ryaan.
Such pre-tournament international friendlies serve a few purposes, including being an audition for fringe players and a morale booster for the squad.
Unfortunately for the Lions, both objectives wouldn't have been met in the first of two friendlies, and there would now be some pressure to show an immediate response against India on Saturday.