Lions at a loss for words to describe semi-final exit
Loss for words. Disappointment. Anger.
That sums up how national captain Hariss Harun and the Lions feel after narrowly missing out on the AFF Suzuki Cup final.
Despite his experience, the 31-year-old with 107 national caps was unable to describe the manner of the defeat. Down to just eight men, the Lions produced a defiant, backs-against-the-wall performance but succumbed to a 4-2 extra-time loss in the semi-final, second leg on Christmas Day.
Indonesia advanced to the two-legged final with an aggregate score of 5-3.
Hariss told The Straits Times: "I am lost for words till now with how the game turned out. It was in our hands even though we were down to nine men. I genuinely thought it was going to end well for us.
"At the start of the tournament, nobody would have thought that we would be on the verge of a final and we would end it all like that. It's painful but we have to pick ourselves up and look forward."
Hariss and his teammates would feel that they had every right to feel aggrieved by the end of the match. The Lions saw a host of decisions go against them in front of 9,982 fans at the National Stadium.
Indonesia led 1-0 thanks to Ezra Walian's 11th-minute opener. In the 36th minute, Safuwan Baharudin was cautioned for a tackle on Witan. Replays showed that the defender had won the ball fairly.
Five minutes later, Amy Recha looked to have been impeded by Rachmat Irianto but the referee, Omani Qasim Matar Ali Al Hatmi, remained unmoved.
It got worse for the Lions after Safuwan received a second yellow card for clashing with Rizky Ridho before a free-kick was taken in first-half added time.
Justice was seemingly served when the free-kick was eventually taken and Song Ui-young pounced to equalise with his first international goal on his sixth appearance.
In the 66th minute, the Lions were down to nine men after Irfan Fandi received his marching orders for bundling over Irfan Jaya as the last man.
Incredibly, the Lions took the lead in the 74th minute, when Shahdan Sulaiman whipped an exquisite free-kick around the wall and into the goal.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, Singapore continued to defend for their lives. Hassan Sunny produced numerous top-drawer saves to keep his side in the match, and he did so again against Witan in the 87th minute but was helpless to prevent Pratama Arhan from making it 2-2. Replays showed that the defender was offside.
Two minutes later, Pratama brought down Shawal Anuar in the box, giving Faris Ramli and the Lions a chance to regain the lead, but Nadeo Argawinata dived correctly to his left to parry away Faris' effort.
The match went into extra-time and ultimately the nine-men Lions could not hold on with substitutes Irfan Jaya and Egy Maulana scoring the Garuda's third and fourth goals. Hassan was sent off in the 119th minute for a foul on Irfan Jaya, following which Ikhsan was required to play in goal.
Across both legs of the semi-finals against Indonesia, the team rose to the occasion and put in battling performances. This, despite the unavailability of key players Gabriel Quak and defender Shakir Hamzah.
Among those that praised the Lions' efforts were Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong and Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin. PM Lee described it as "an amazing effort" and noted although they lost, they "put up strong fight and showed tremendous spirit holding their own and putting up a solid defence despite the odds".
Lions coach Tatsuma Yoshida praised his charges for a positive campaign, as they reached the Suzuki Cup semis for the first time since 2012.
He noted that there were signs of improvement after June's World Cup qualifiers, where the Lions lost all three matches, shipped 12 goals and scored none.
"There was a big, big difference (compared to June)," said the Japanese. "The boys and I learned a lot from that experience and we showed that spirit against Indonesia.
"Before the tournament, the boys doubted themselves and game by game, our confidence grew. Every player in the squad has shown to me that they deserve to play at the national level."