Stepping up in key Lions’ absence
Ilhan, 18, does not look out of place on his debut as central striker, while Yasir, Madhu, Shahdan and Izwan show leadership qualities
With several key Lions unavailable, others grabbed their opportunity to shine in a 1-1 draw with Afghanistan in Dubai yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Ilhan Fandi, the youngest of the Lions' 25-man squad at just 18 years old, did not look out of place in the training match, as he took over as the central striker, in place of his second brother Ikhsan Fandi.
The 22-year-old had withdrawn from the squad due to a knee injury suffered during pre-season with Norwegian club FK Jerv.
In his absence, national coach Tatsuma Yoshida was on the lookout for a target-man, with the World Cup qualifiers looming in Saudi Arabia over these two weeks.
Ilhan, on his first outing with the national team, showed that he could be an option, as he coalesced nicely as a front three with Lion City Sailors' wingers Hafiz Nor and Gabriel Quak.
Quak, who capitalised on a counter-attack to open accounts with a grounder in the 40th minute, felt that Ilhan had stood out the most.
The 30-year-old told The New Paper in a Zoom interview: "I knew what he was capable of but he far exceeded my expectations of him. I wondered how he would cope but it didn't seem like it was his first game for the country.
"He won a lot of balls and fouls. He had a presence and it's nice to have him as another option for the team."
Yoshida was also pleased with the teenager's performance and said that he "almost passed the exam".
"He's young but he has good talent and didn't panic on the pitch. That is a very important quality in a player," said the Japanese tactician.
"He should get used to the international level but there is also no rush."
Ilhan credited the senior players for guiding him and making him feel comfortable.
"It was a good warm-up for the qualifiers and I felt like I've been playing with the team for quite some time," said Ilhan, who was replaced by Faris Ramli at half-time, as Yoshida gave almost all the players a run out.
Besides Ikhsan, the Lions were also without captain Hariss Harun, Baihakki Khaizan (personal reasons) and Safuwan Baharudin (injury) .
Yoshida, who was able to make unlimited substitutions against their 149th-ranked opponents - 10 rungs above the Lions in the Fifa rankings - also gave credit to several other Lions who were given new roles.
Yasir Hanapi, who started alongside M. Anumanthan and Shahdan Sulaiman in midfield, was handed the captain's armband and showed that he could be a good leader, said Yoshida.
Shahdan is "very quiet" but also "showed good leadership on the pitch".
So did goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud and defender Madhu Mohana, who took over as the skipper in the second half.
The Tampines Rovers centre-back, who started alongside Irfan Fandi at the heart of defence, also showed "good chemistry" with his second-half partner and former club mate, Amirul Adli, now with the Sailors.
While there were positives in the Lions' first match since November 2019, Yoshida was disappointed with the concession of an injury-time equaliser.
The Lions lost possession while going forward, which led to a headed leveller past Hassan Sunny. It came from midfielder Zubayr Amiri , who plays for German fifth-tier side SC Hessen Dreieich.
"We didn't need to go forward. The boys tried to score one more, but we have to maintain our awareness," said Yoshida.
"We didn't need to give them an opportunity to counter-attack… and have to learn how to close the game."
Agreeing with Yoshida, Quak said: "It's a lesson to take away that even though it's just a friendly, we need to be smarter and have something to hold on."
The Lions will be flying to Riyadh today, with Yoshida having already decided on "90 per cent of his line-up" for the World Cup qualifier against Palestine on Friday morning.
Hariss is set to miss the game as he is expected to join the Lions only after his quarantine ends on Saturday.
The Lions are third in Group D, four points behind leaders Saudi Arabia and two points behind second-placed Uzbekistan.
Yoshida is targeting four points from these three games, which means the Lions will likely have to beat world No. 104 Palestine and hold either Saudi (65th) or Uzbekistan (86th) to a draw next week.
Finishing second in the group could give them a chance to join the eight group winners in the third round of Asia's World Cup qualifiers and also earn them a spot at the 2023 Asian Cup in China.