Facing a side ranked 75 spots above them in 90th, Singapore came into last night’s AIRMARINE Cup final as huge underdogs. Oman, fresh from their run to the knockout stages of this year’s AFC Asian Cup, were coming off the back of a 5-0 triumph over Middle Eastern rivals Afghanistan in the semi final earlier this week, and were expected to record a comfortable victory over their less-accomplished rivals.
The Lions, meanwhile, looked to be in all sorts of trouble. Having already missed the services of key players Shakir Hamzah, Irfan Fandi, Ikhsan Fandi, Zulqarnaen Suzliman and Hassan Sunny in their AIRMARINE Cup opener against Malaysia on Thursday, they were further rocked by injuries to deputy goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud and captain Hariss Harun, which saw the introduction of the relatively inexperienced Zaiful Nizam in goal and Izzdin Shafiq in the heart of midfield. For all their endeavour against the Tigers in the semi-final, the Lions looked in for a pummelling.
However, Singapore had other ideas. Right from the get-go, the Lions flew about the pitch in aggressive fashion, snapping into tackles and giving the Omani players virtually no space to breathe, with the industrious midfield pairing of Yasir Hanapi and Izzdin at the heart of it.
Nazri’s game plan works to perfection
With Afghanistan’s decision to allow the Oman players space and time on the ball arguably proving the catalyst for their 5-0 drubbing, Nazri set his side up in a completely opposite fashion. Bearing in mind the technical and physical quality this Oman side possesses, Singapore pressed urgently and squeezed play high up the pitch, forcing Al Ahmar to knock it about patiently between their centre-halves, waiting for an opening.
With Nazrul Nazari and Faritz Hameed effectively doubling up on the right-hand side to stop Omani talisman Raed Saleh, the Valetta FC winger was restricted to short, ineffective passes, unable to replicate his usual game of taking on and beating fullbacks. Nazrul in particular displayed an excellent understanding of the game’s dark arts, leaving his foot in and giving Raed subtle kicks in the heels to let the Oman man know he was there.
This led him to resort to making runs in behind, which could’ve been effective if not for an airtight offside trap organized by the excellent Safuwan Baharudin, captain for the night. It was all going swimmingly for Singapore up until right before the half hour mark, when Omani frontman Aziz Al Maqbani rose unchallenged in a seemingly offside position to nod a cross beyond Singapore custodian Zaiful, triggering wild celebrations amongst the Oman players.
Questionable officiating costs Lions
To their credit, Singapore did anything but fold and continued to stand up to their supposedly superior opponents with gusto. They could, and probably should have had a penalty right before halftime, which would’ve inevitably swung the course of the game.
Receiving the ball just inside the penalty area, the tricky Yasir swivelled on his axis to escape his man before attempting to thread a flicked pass between two Oman centre backs and into the unmarked Safuwan, who would’ve been clean through on goal. However, an outstretched arm from an Omani defender clearly impeded the path of the ball, preventing it from reaching its target.
The Singapore players, along with the 150 or so Lions fans in the stands, were furious, but the referee waved away their frantic appeals, as Oman broke down the other end and nearly scored a second from a three on two position, although they failed to make the most of it. Denied what seemed to be a stonewall penalty, the Lions seemed fired up, and went into the break just a single goal down and determined to set things right in the second half.
Chance after chance finally rewarded
Inspired by their showing towards the end of the first half, Singapore came flying out of the traps, stringing together passing moves and putting the Oman defence under pressure. Flying winger Faris Ramli had an excellent header saved by goalkeeper Faiz Al-Rushiadi, before Nazrul broke clean in on goal after some confusion over an offside decision, but dallied and failed to get a shot away as he was caught up by the Oman defenders.
Singapore had the ball in the net just moments later, as Faris’ audacious chip sailed over Al-Rushiadi and into the roof of the net, but the linesman’s flag went up for offside. A quick throw-in by Hougang United’s number 10 also set up Irwan Shah with a great opportunity to play in Khairul Amri, but the fullback made the wrong decision as he opted to play it wide instead.
On came Hariss Harun, Zulfahmi Arifin and Khairul Nizam as Singapore desperately searched for an equalizer, throwing everything at the Omani back four in search of a goal that would take the game to penalties. However, with Oman largely regarded as 1-0 specialists, all hope seemed to be lost for the Lions, as Oman nonchalantly knocked it back and forth between their centre-halves, with tired Singapore legs struggling to maintain the high pressing intensity that had served them so well the past 85 minutes or so. A final chance arrived in the final minute of stoppage time, as the hardworking Khairul Nizam was hauled down just outside the area. A last roll of the dice for Singapore, who would have to make this one count.
Despite a moment’s deliberation between Faris and Zulfahmi over who should take the free kick, there was only ever going to be one winner. Barely breaking a sweat, the former Chonburi star thumped a whipping, swerving effort beyond Al-Rushiadi and into the top corner of the Oman goal. Cue scenes on the pitch, the dugout, and in the traveling Singapore contingent in the Bukit Jalil stands. It was a moment of sheer brilliance to cap off an incredibly industrious and hardworking performance from the Singapore team.
The penalty shootout, albeit ending in defeat, was far from disastrous for the Lions, who netted four of their five penalties. The defining moment came when Faris Ramli did well to send the goalkeeper the wrong way, only for his penalty to clip the top of the crossbar. Zaiful Nizam got close to two of Oman’s penalties, but it wasn’t to be for the Lions, who can take great pride in their performances over the two games in this year’s AIRMARINE Cup.