Saturday, November 29, 2014

AFF Suzuki Cup 2014: Singapore vs. Malaysia - Preview

Singapore and Malaysia will face off in a potential elimination game tonight at 8 pm. As things stand, Thailand - who have already qualified for the next round - lead Group B with 6 points, Singapore are next with 3, and Malaysia and Myanmar have a point apiece courtesy of their goalless draw. 

Aside from Thailand's progression, little else in Group B has been settled. Below are some possible scenarios:

1. Singapore will top Group B if they beat Malaysia and Thailand lose to Myanmar. Malaysia and Myanmar will be eliminated.

2. Singapore will finish second in Group B if Thailand beat Myanmar and either (1) Singapore beat Malaysia or (2) Singapore draw with Malaysia. Malaysia and Myanmar will be eliminated.

3. Singapore will (finish third or fourth and) be eliminated if (1) they lose to Malaysia, regardless of the other result or (2) they draw with Malaysia and Myanmar beat Thailand by four or more goals.

The first-placed team in Group B will face the Philippines in the next round; the runner-up will take on Vietnam.

Team News: Singapore

Singapore goes into the new National Stadium's inaugural "Causeway derby" without two key players - Baihakki Khaizan (suspension) and Shahdan Sulaiman (injury). Defender Safuwan Baharudin, who has conceded two penalties in two group games, is on a yellow card; a booking tonight will keep him out of the first leg of the next round of games. Wing-back Ismadi Mukhtar picked up a knock in the Singapore-Myanmar tie and is a likely game-time decision.

Team News: Malaysia

Malaysia, in comparison, enter this fixture with its full complement of players. Central midfielder Gary Robbat, who was sent off in the Tigers' first group fixture against Myanmar, may return to Malaysia's starting lineup.

The Skinny

Singapore-Malaysia matches - even friendlies - have always been keenly-followed affairs; now, with so much at stake for both sides, this meeting promises to be a cracker. So many signs point to this tie being a memorable one: new home turf, new coaches (both Bernd Stange and Dollah Salleh are overseeing their debut Suzuki Cups) and, perhaps most importantly, the same old die-hard fans and their considerable expectations.

Singapore's recent results under coach Stange have been lukewarm. While the players have finally shown signs of having taken the coach's philosophy on board, their tournament play has been as patchy as it has been eye-catching. Thailand and particularly Myanmar had their way with Singapore for extended periods in their respective games, depriving the Lions of ball possession and incessantly getting in their faces. As good as Singapore have looked on the ball at times, it is their off-ball play, particularly in defence, that has to improve if they are to advance from Group B, let alone be taken seriously as title contenders.

This is particularly because this Malaysia team has the ideal set of tools to cause the Singapore players headaches. In Gary Robbat and the excellent Safiq Rahim, the Malayisan team boasts quality central midfielders capable of winning, retaining and using the ball well; in S. Kunanlan they have the exact pacey devilish winger prototype that has caused Singapore the most grief thus far this tournament. Malaysia will no doubt be looking to keep the ball and apply constant pressure on Singapore's backline so as to render Stange's new-school possession-based approach redundant.

Tactical Analysis and Prediction

As mentioned earlier, Singapore will be without Baihakki Khaizan for the match. This necessarily means that coach Stange will either put influential midfielder Hariss Harun in central defence and introduce another starter in central midfield or keep Hariss in midfield and start a replacement at centre-back.

According to local media, Stange is likely to pursue the former course of action by starting the left-footed schemer Zulfahmi Arifin in the heart of the midfield where, presumably, he will play alongside Shahril Ishak and Shahdan Sulaiman's replacement (who is unconfirmed as yet). Stange seems adamant about the utility of his possession-based tactical approach, and is likely to follow it to the bitter end through his preference for ball-player types.

This would be a disastrous decision, as it would deprive Singapore's midfield of both Hariss' dynamism and any semblance of experience. Any replacement for Shahdan is likely to be an attacking player - or Hafiz Sujad, who is a wide defender by trade. I don't hold out a lot of hope that a hypothetical midfield three of Zulfahmi-Hafiz-Shahril will stand up to the task of having to play both ends of the field for 90 minutes, especially since everyone knows that Shahril operates in advanced positions, leaving Zulfahmi and Hafiz to try to clamp down on Gary Robbat, Safiq Rahim and company.

I would instead argue a case for playing Shakir Hamzah in central defence beside Safuwan. Firstly, both of them have been LionsXII teammates for a while and thus there should be no problems with adaptation and fit. Secondly, as a regular in the LionsXII rotation Shakir would have become fairly familiar with the Malaysian forwards' play styles. Thirdly, it would allow Hariss to remain where he is clearly best at. Fourthly, Zulfahmi's performances in limited minutes thus far have been unconvincing; further, his languid, patient style of play appears far better suited for the lower-tempo S-League or MSL play and might be out of place in a potentially frenetic encounter like this. 

This is especially so given how Malaysia is likely to go for broke in attack in this fixture. The forward line, while not wholly convincing thus far, nevertheless reads like a who's who of Southeast Asian football: Safee Sali, Norshahrul Talaha, Amri Yahyah and the veteran Indra Putra Mahayuddin are all capable of game-turning plays on their day. Having Hariss in the midfield will alert Malaysia to the possibility of getting caught out on the counter enough to keep them honest.

Finally we get to the Singapore attack: all signs point to Stange keeping his usual front three of Sahil Suhaimi, Faris Ramli and Khairul Amri for this match. There are other available options too: Fazrul Nawaz might have a role given his pace, physique and defensive work, and even Ismadi Mukhtar, if healthy, could see time on the wings. Again, Stange feels like he can get the Lions to play keep-ball and impose his system on the opposition; if that were the case, he has every reason to retain his starting frontline. However, as mentioned, this looks to be the sort of brutal encounter where tactical nuances fly out the window and instincts and sheer bloody-minded physicality come to the fore. 

Hence, my projected starting line-up for the Lions would look like this: (4-3-3) Hassan Sunny; Al-Qaasimy Abdul Rahman, Safuwan Baharudin, Shakir Hamzah, Shaiful Esah; Hariss Harun, Hafiz Sujad, Shahril Ishak; Ismadi Mukhtar, Khairul Amri, Fazrul Nawaz.

However, the likelihood is that Stange - who has developed a reputation for consistency (stubbornness?) - will play this lineup instead: (4-3-3) Hassan; Ismadi, Safuwan, Hariss, Shaiful; Zulfahmi, Hafiz, Shahril; Sahil, Khairul, Faris.

My prediction - based on how Stange will have Singapore play, not what I think the tactics ought to be - is that Singapore, weighed down by the expectations of having to get a result against their neighbours and rivals on their new home turf, will have a nervy-as-hell start. However, the Malaysian team might run itself dry trying to grab goals while keeping tabs on the Myanmar-Thailand result. A 1-1 draw it is, then.

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