Defensive duo do the damage as Singapore sink Palestine
Safuwan Baharudin celebrates restoring Singapore's lead (Photo credit: Football Association of Singapore)

Truth be told, there were some mixed feelings in the Lions camp heading into this one. Having ground out a 2-2 draw with Yemen, a side ranked 20 places above them in the FIFA rankings, at the National Stadium last Thursday, Singapore had on paper got off to a positive start in what was set to be a tricky qualifying campaign. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you see it), football isn't played on paper.

The Lions were left to rue a host of missed opportunities in their previous outing, in which their profligacy in front of goal was taken advantage of by a clinical Yemeni frontline, who punished Singapore ruthlessly, converting their only two major opportunities to steal a point. It was very much two points dropped for the Lions at Kallang, so it would have been understandable if they had come into tonight's clash feeling frustrated, rather than inspired.

Lions off to a flyer

However, if there were any lingering ill-feelings from last week's encounter, they weren't around for long. With barely three minutes on the clock, Singapore frontman Ikhsan Fandi did well to close down the Palestine defense in the area, with the loose ball eventually landing at the feet of Shakir Hamzah. The centre back by trade, deployed at left wing back for the occasion, poked the ball beyond his marker before rifling one past Rami Hamada and into the far corner, and we had liftoff at Jalan Besar.

 It was just the start Singapore required, and who else but Mr Reliable, coming off the back of a stellar season for Kedah in the Malaysia Super League, to provide it. With the SingaBrigade leading the chants from the Gallery end of the stadium, it looked as though Palestine could be in for a long night.

But alas, disaster struck, as it often does when things start to go well for the Lions. A defensive catastrophe just 10 minutes later saw Amirul Adli and Irfan Fandi caught ball-watching following an attempted overhead kick, and Palestinian defender Yaser Hamed reacted fastest to beat Izwan Mahbud and restore parity for Palestine. Game on.

Fighting spirit serves Singapore well

What followed the equalizer was an intense spell of Palestine pressure, with the visitors upping the ante in search of a second. Having dispatched Group D big guns Uzbekistan 2-0 in Ramallah last time out, a win here would put the war-torn territory top of the pile, and move them a step closer to the 3rd round of World Cup Qualifying, and the Asian Cup. However, in typical backs-to-the-wall fashion, the Lions hung in there, with Irfan, Amirul and Safuwan doing well to keep the effervescent Palestine attack at bay.

The reward for their persistence would come six minutes before the interval. In a rare foray forward, Ikhsan won a corner off a Palestine player and the Singapore players looked relieved simply at the chance to catch a breather. The corner was floated in towards the centre of the penalty area, and stunningly, given the vertical superiority of the men in white, found its way onto the head of Safuwan Baharudin. The Pahang FA centre half sent a thumping header goalwards leaving Hamada with no chance, and the Palestinian custodian looked on in horror as the ball sailed into the corner of the net for 2-1. Jubilation for the 6,011 in attendance, and Jalan Besar was rocking again. 

Defensive solidity key for Lions

The second half was rather uneventful, barring a couple of skirmishes on the pitch between both sets of players. Most of the half was played in Singapore's half, but the Lions defended resolutely, and Palestine rarely threatened throughout the second period. Perhaps the most noteworthy moment came in stoppage time, when Singapore broke following a Palestine set piece and found themselves in a three on two situation. However, Hafiz Nor was more interested in running down the clock than taking advantage of the chance, drawing the ire of the Singapore faithful in the stands. 

The final whistle went, and the relief around Jalan Besar was palpable as Singapore held on to what is set to be a massive three points in the race for Asian Cup qualification. They may not have had the lion's share of possession, but the Lions were worthy winners, something acknowledged by manager Tatsuma Yoshida in his post-match presser.

"Congratulations to my boys," he said with a smile."They played well, and were tough. I think we played much better than before."

"I'm very happy, but only for today. Tomorrow, we start preparing for the next match," he continued.

Indeed, the Japanese tactician does have his work cut out for him if he is to secure qualification to the Asian Cup for the first time in Singapore's history. However, despite the desperate disappointment against Yemen, four points out of six against two tough, physical sides is a decent return for the Lions, who will look to kick on against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh next month, followed by a crunch home tie with Uzbekistan at the National Stadium. If Singapore are still Group D's top dogs after those fixtures, maybe it finally is time for the beleaguered local football fan to dream again.