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Singapore Football

Lions seek improvement against Thailand

A 7-0 thumping at home by South Korea on June 6 has left the Lions battered, fans disappointed and critics lamenting that Singapore’s open approach had contributed to their humbling at the National Stadium.

But national coach Tsutomu Ogura has asserted that a defensive style would not bring progress. While admitting that there is no quick fix, the Japanese tactician wants the team to continue to learn from their mistakes while embracing his brand of attacking football.

The Lions, still licking their wounds, will be determined to bounce back in the final Group C match of their World Cup qualifying campaign on June 11. They take on Thailand in Bangkok, with only pride at stake.

Regardless of the result, Singapore, who have only one point from five matches, will finish bottom of the four-team group.

Thailand, with five points, will be eyeing an emphatic win as they seek to overcome an inferior goal difference of minus two to leapfrog second-placed China, who have eight points and a goal difference of plus one, and qualify for the next round.

However, Ogura said they will not be putting all 11 men behind the ball against the War Elephants, who drew 1-1 with China away on June 6.

Ogura may not be in the dugout at the Rajamangala National Stadium, having tested positive for Covid-19 on June 10, but assistant coach Gavin Lee, who will take over his duties, said they will carry out his instructions.

Responding to The Straits Times’ questions ahead of the match, Ogura said via a written response: “My belief is that our fans want to see us try to win games, not just sit back and try for a 0-0 or a small loss.

“We tried against Korea and were punished by their quality. If what fans want is for us to defend with 11 men and limit the loss to two or three goals, then I’m the wrong coach for the job.

“The work is on ourselves, to improve on the way we play... Defending with 11 men and then going for a counter-attack and winning 1-0, hoping that Thailand will have a bad day, to me that’s not progress.”

Lee said at the pre-match press conference: “We are here to execute what we have planned as a coaching team from the get-go. Tomorrow’s game is us as one team with coach Ogura leading the ideas and it’s us on the pitch.”

Jacob Mahler, who is back from suspension, believes that the pressure is on Thailand. Besides having to rack up the goals against the Lions, the Thais must also hope that South Korea, who have already qualified for the next round as group leaders, beat China in Seoul.

Mahler, who can play in midfield and in defence, said: “Of course, Thailand will come out strong, but we are mentally prepared. We know what we want to do and we want to play coach Ogura’s style and we will continue to stick with that.”

On the Lions’ approach under Ogura, Lee added they are at the beginning of their journey and their ideas, concept and thinking must not change.

“We have identified where we let ourselves down a little bit and tomorrow is about doing better in those things we should be doing better (in),” said the BG Tampines Rovers coach. 

Ogura, who was appointed in February, admitted that “players made mistakes, but so did I”.

“In the Korea game, if I could do something different, maybe it would have been to make changes a little bit faster,” said the Japanese, whose first substitutions came in the 62nd minute, with four players coming on when the team were trailing 5-0.

He also highlighted the areas in which the Lions need to step up, which include defending, pressing better when off the ball and being more clinical in the final third.

The hope is that these improvements will be made in time for the Nov 23-Dec 21 Asean Football Federation Championship.

Beyond the tactical and technical aspects, Ogura also wants a positive change in terms of mentality.

He said: “When we are nervous, the tendency would be to sit back and try to stop the opponents – you saw that after Korea scored the third goal.

“So mentally, it’s for us to learn to stop being scared, even if we make mistakes or the opponents are playing very well.

“Continue to believe in ourselves, in our way of football, in what we practised in training.”