Ikhsan Fandi's first international hat-trick spurs Lions to first win under Nishigaya
Since he scored his first goal for Singapore in a 1-1 draw against Mauritius in a 2018 friendly, Ikhsan Fandi had never gone more than three matches without scoring for the Lions.
And if there were any doubts over his finishing, they would have certainly disappeared on Tuesday (June 14) as Ikhsan bagged his first international hat-trick in a 6-2 win over Myanmar in the final match of their Asian Cup qualifiers in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Ikhsan, 23, who also had an assist, ended a four-game drought with his treble which takes his tally to 16 goals in 31 matches for Singapore.
The result gave Lions coach Takayuki Nishigaya his first win as national coach after four matches. Nishigaya had lost all three of his opening games following his appointment in April, including a 2-0 defeat by Kuwait in a friendly in his first match.
The Lions then lost 2-1 to group hosts Kyrgyzstan last Wednesday and 1-0 to Tajikistan three days later in the Asian Cup qualifiers, which placed them out of the running for next year's Finals.
Ikhsan's last goal came in a 2-1 win over Malaysia in a friendly in March, where he netted a brace.
With the win against Myanmar, who are six places above the 158th-ranked Lions, Singapore will finish third in the four-team Group F with three points from three matches.
The Lions have made it a point to start matches at a fast pace under Nishigaya but paid dearly for squandering chances in the losses to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But against Myanmar, they made it count as they raced into a two-goal lead in the opening 16 minutes.
In the ninth minute, a pin-point cross by Gabriel Quak from the left flank was met expertly by a header from Ikhsan for his first goal of the night.
Seven minutes later, Song Ui-young doubled the Lions' lead after his low drive from 30 metres out squeezed in at the near post.
In the 42nd minute, Ikhsan returned the favour to Quak as the pair exchanged a one-two before the latter drilled it into the low corner of the net from just outside the box.
In the absence of centre-backs Irfan Fandi, who had been suspended after an accumulation of yellow cards, and Safuwan Baharudin, who had returned to Singapore due to a family emergency, Nishigaya handed starts to Amirul Adli and Tampines Rovers defender Ryaan Sanizal, 20, who made his national debut.
The makeshift backline held its own till the 53rd minute when Win Naing Tun headed in a free-kick.
Ikhsan responded just a minute later when he accelerated past Myanmar defender Ye Min Thu before slotting in past goalkeeper Pyae Phyo Thu to complete his hat-trick. This has taken his goal tally this year to 20, including 15 for Thai club BG Pathum.
Myanmar got their second goal in the 66th minute after a misplaced pass from Ryaan saw the ball turned over to Myanmar before Aung Kuang Mann ran clear of the Singapore defence and scored past Hassan Sunny.
And in the 69th minute, Ikhsan got his hat-trick and Singapore's fifth when he got on the end of a brilliant lofted ball from Faris Ramli and finished coolly with his weaker left foot.
Substitute Hafiz Nor saved the best strike for the last in the 89th minute when he unleashed a first-time volley off Nur Adam Abdullah's cross from the left.
The Lions had gone into their last match of the third and final round of qualifiers with no chance of being one of 11 teams that will advance to the finals. The six group winners and five best second-placed teams will advance to next year's finals that will be held in June.
By virtue of their achievements in the previous round, 13 teams - Japan, Syria, Qatar, South Korea, Australia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, China, Iraq, Oman, Vietnam and Lebanon - had already booked their places earlier.
At the fourth time of asking, the Lions finally delivered a win under coach Nishigaya. While it has come against fellow South-east Asian side Myanmar in what was a dead rubber, it was an indication of the firepower that the Lions possess in their armoury. This was the Lions' biggest victory against Myanmar in their 12th match against the opponents. The previous best was a 3-0 win during the AFF Suzuki Cup last December.
Against Kyrgyzstan (95th) and Tajikistan (114th) who were also higher ranked than the Lions, Singapore created multiple clear-cut chances but were not clinical.
But the identity that has been forged under Nishigaya - one with aggressive pressing and quick transitions in attack - was once again on display here and this time the Lions put their chances away with aplomb.
On the whole, this has been a positive qualifying tournament for Nishigaya's men when it comes to performances but if the Japanese coach is hopeful of proving to be a successful appointment, the Lions including hat-trick hero Ikhsan must convert against the continent's better sides in trying circumstances and not just in inconsequential ties like this.