Ikhsan and Ilhan set to play in Lions’ clash with China, Latest Singapore Football News - The New Paper
Singapore Football

Ikhsan and Ilhan set to play in Lions’ clash with China

When they were growing up in Indonesia while their father Fandi Ahmad was coaching Pelita Jaya from 2006 to 2010, Ikhsan and Ilhan Fandi formed a telepathic understanding for their school and academy football teams.

Ikhsan told The Straits Times: “I would be like Erling Haaland, I’m direct, I don’t really touch the ball too much, I just score. And Ilhan would be like Kevin de Bruyne, he drops a bit deeper, gets more touches of the ball and looks for those penetrative passes.”

Ilhan added: “He knows what kind of ball I can give and I know what kind of run he is going to make. We are very close as brothers, we just have that connection, and we push each other to do better.”

More than a decade on, the forwards are hoping to replicate their childhood partnership in Singapore’s World Cup qualifier against China at the National Stadium on March 21.

While they have done well to terrorise defences for their respective clubs, the dynamic duo have played just a total of 62 minutes together for the Lions in friendlies, before being hit by serious knee injuries.

Their road to recovery was fraught with setbacks and lasted for almost a year.

Ikhsan admitted that his acceleration has been affected, but is returning as a “new and improved” player.

His club form has been encouraging, as he registered five goals and two assists in 13 games for BG Pathum since Nov 28.

“I’m closer to coming back fully,” said the 24-year-old, who has 34 caps and 17 goals for the Lions.

“I’m still a direct player, still running for balls behind the defence, but fans may notice me running differently.

“I feel like a new player because I’ve had to make adjustments for the knee injury. Because I was so wary of my knees, I’ve learnt to protect the ball better and time my runs better.”

Ilhan, meanwhile, made an earlier return to competitive football but found playing time harder to come by.

Other than World Cup qualifiers against Guam (twice), South Korea and Thailand in October and November, he recorded just five minutes for Belgian second-tier side KMSK Deinze in January.

The 21-year-old, who scored 18 goals in 24 games for Singapore Premier League champions Albirex Niigata in 2022, told Money FM’s Sports Minutes that he was not enjoying his football due to the lack of first-team action at Deinze.

He later told ST he was so desperate to play, he asked to feature for the Deinze Under-21s and has scored six goals in 10 games.

Ilhan, who has 12 caps and two goals for Singapore, said the coach did not accede to his request at first, but relented so that he could get playing time ahead of international matches.

“The Under-21 league is still of a good level as senior players on the fringe or coming back from injury are also allowed to play,” Ilhan added.

“I’m at about 85 per cent of what I was before the injury and really looking forward to playing alongside my brothers (including defender Irfan Fandi) and contributing to the national team.”

The fit-again forwards provide a huge boost to new Lions coach Tsutomu Ogura, who suggested at the pre-match press conference on March 20 that he will commit more bodies to attack.

When asked about the visitors, the 57-year-old Japanese initially claimed he does not know what to expect as his counterpart Branko Ivankovic is also taking charge of his first match.

But Ogura later admitted that he has consulted Shanghai Port coach and former Yokohama F. Marinos colleague Kevin Muscat and Qingdao West Coast manager Hisashi Kurosaki for more information on 88th-ranked China, who crashed out of the Asian Cup without scoring a single goal in January.

In the World Cup qualifiers, they laboured to a comeback 2-1 win in Thailand before a 3-0 loss to Group C leaders South Korea. World No. 156 Singapore are bottom after losing 5-0 to the Koreans and 3-1 to the third-placed Thais.

Ivankovic said: “Our main target is to qualify for the World Cup. Maybe we are the favourites for this match, but that means nothing. It all depends on the performance on the pitch, and I expect a hard game tomorrow.”

Ikhsan FandiIlhan FandiSingapore FootballWorld Cup qualifiersSingapore National StadiumChina