Suzuki Cup: Second-string Thailand beat Singapore 2-0 to top Group A
Throughout the ongoing Suzuki Cup, Lions coach Tatsuma Yoshida has been keen to temper expectations and call his team "challengers" or underdogs, and the final Group A match against Thailand on Saturday (Dec 18) provided the reasons.
With semi-final qualification assured for both sides, the War Elephants made wholesale changes and fielded a completely different starting XI from the team that beat the Philippines 2-1 on Tuesday, and still ran out comfortable 2-0 winners in front of 9,514 fans at the National Stadium.
This meant Thailand top Group A with a perfect four wins, while Singapore are second with three wins and one loss. They will play their semi-finals against one of Vietnam, Indonesia or Malaysia from Group B on Dec 22 and 25.
In Saturday's other match, the Philippines beat Myanmar 3-2 at Bishan Stadium to finish third on six points, while the latter are fourth with their solitary win over bottom side Timor-Leste.
Singapore, who fielded almost their strongest line-up, did make a bright start to the match and forced a flurry of corners in the opening exchanges.
But the turning point came when left-back Shakir Hamzah was stretchered off in the 11th minute with a heavily bandaged right leg after a nasty collision with Thitiphan Puangjan.
The visitors struck first through their first set-piece opportunity. Bordin Phala's superb free-kick was matched by Hassan Sunny who tipped it on to the woodwork, only for Elias Dolah to scramble in the loose ball in the 31st minute.
With five minutes of first-half added time due to several injury stoppages, Singapore lost concentration and allowed Supachai Chaided to be played through to double Thailand's advantage.
Despite having seven corners and 14 free-kicks, Singapore could not find a consolation goal.
Shawal Anuar had a shot saved by Siwarak Tedsungnoen, while Irfan Fandi also blazed wide but the hosts also had to rely on some desperate defending to keep the scoreline respectable after being carved open on numerous occasions.
The Lions and Yoshida know that while they have met the minimum requirement of making it to the knockout stage for the first time since 2012, they are still rank underdogs with defending champions Vietnam and five-time winners Thailand in the picture.
The initial feel-good factor after three straight wins against Myanmar (3-0), the Philippines (2-1) and Timor-Leste (2-0) has dissipated and the loss is a reality check as Thailand's B team have beaten Singapore's best XI, albeit with nothing more than group winners status at stake.
Yoshida will also have to reevaluate his options. If Shakir is ruled out through injury, do they go with the more cultured Zulfahmi Arifin or natural left-back Nur Adam Abdullah, or do they switch to a back three and play both? Can they keep their shape and focus for back-to-back matches?
In midfield, surely they must revert to the more experienced Song Ui-young, while in attack, they will have to go back to the drawing board to rediscover their scoring touch.
The Lions now have less than four days to recover, shake off their disappointment and come up with a plan to overcome the odds.