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Lacklustre Lions beaten 2-0 by second-string Tajikistan

Lacking goals, creativity and urgency, the national football team’s malaise persisted as 10-man Singapore lost 2-0 to an under-strength Tajikistan at Bishan Stadium on Friday.

The loss brings to an end an unbeaten run of four games but, in truth, the 158th-ranked Lions have failed to inspire this year.

They will host world No. 153 Chinese Taipei in another friendly at the same venue on Tuesday as they prepare for their first-round World Cup qualifiers against Guam on Oct 12 and 17. But the signs are that they have not progressed in more than a year under Takayuki Nishigaya.

When asked if the team have regressed under him, the Japanese coach, who faced verbal abuse from a section of the 2,211-strong fans, replied: “I accept your opinion and understand the criticism, but I will face it and won’t run away from it.

“My objective is to help us progress from the qualifiers next month. I’m communicating with the players to make sure we are on the same page. I try my best for the team, and if there is an issue with the tactics, I take responsibility.”

As the 50-year-old continues to tinker with his line-up, making seven changes to the starting XI that drew 2-2 with Solomon Islands in June, Singapore continued to underwhelm.

He explained he picks his team based on fitness and form and has to adjust accordingly. To be fair, he was also missing key players such as injured attackers, the Fandi brothers Ikhsan and Ilhan.

But they were playing against a second-string Tajikistan team who were there for the taking despite being ranked 110th.

Tajikistan coach Petar Sergt claimed they are a much-changed side from the team that beat Singapore 1-0 in the Asian Cup qualifiers in June 2022, with 22 of his top players ruled out for various reasons, and he travelled with just 19 players with an average age of 23.8 years.

Manuchekhr Dzhalilov, their all-time top scorer with 20 goals and 51 caps, is in Moscow for cancer treatment, while two other players are ill or injured.

Fourteen are on duty at the U-23 Asian Cup qualifiers, and five have been allowed to train with local club Istiklol ahead of their Asian Champions League opener on Sept 19.

Still, Tajikistan went ahead after just six minutes, when an unmarked Muhammadjon Rahimov volleyed in an acrobatic left-footer off Abubakr Sulaimanov’s corner.

In theory, Nishigaya deployed a formation that could transit into a 3-4-3 in attack, but the hosts gave their opponents too much respect as wing-backs Ryhan Stewart and Hafiz Nor did not push up in the early exchanges as they tried to pass off a lack of ideas as patience.

Too often, when a man in red had the ball, there were no teammates nearby in support. Skipper Hariss Harun had to shout at defender Jacob Mahler to move the ball along quicker, while centre-back Lionel Tan also had a stern exchange with Stewart about positioning.

For most of the match, their play was incohesive and incoherent. As such, the front three of Song Ui-young, Faris Ramli and Adam Swandi were starved of service.

There were two exceptions, when Adam played a lovely ball over the top for Stewart to fire wide from a tight angle in the 35th minute, and when substitute Shawal Anuar combined well with Song in the 63rd minute but failed to pull off a shot.

The Lions’ only shot of the match came from Hariss in the 58th minute, when he fired straight at the goalkeeper.

Adam compounded matters when he got entangled with Tabrez Islomov 14 minutes later, lashed out at the defender and was sent off.

Five minutes into added time, Vahdat Hanonov made it 2-0 from a counter-attack and dedicated his goal to Dzhalilov with a jersey bearing his name.

Sergt said: “This win is unbelievable with our unusual situation. We adapted a lot in two days... A coach is only as good as his players. We have a problem but we also have four, five, six good new players.”