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AFF Championship

AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup 2022: Insipid Lions come crashing back to earth as Malaysia run riot in KL

11:57 AM EST 1/3/23
Stuart Wilkin Malaysia Singapore AFF Cup 2022

In a defeat which was, woefully, largely self-inflicted, Singapore slumped to a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, as a series of defensive calamities coupled with a head-scratching tactical setup from Takayuki Nishigaya meant the Lions, who only needed a point to qualify, are out at the first hurdle for the fourth time in five AFF Championships.

Singapore came into this game ahead of their hosts in the table, but truth be told, leagues apart on the pitch. Shaky wins over minnows Myanmar and Laos were followed with a steely goalless draw with Vietnam on Jalan Besar’s plastic pitch, in which the Lions clung on with just over 20% of the ball. Malaysia, meanwhile, had edged past Myanmar, put Laos to the sword and been comfortably beaten by Vietnam in Hanoi, albeit with some very questionable officiating.

Even prior to kickoff, Singapore boss Nishigaya’s team selection had raised eyebrows, particularly given the harsh criticism he had already faced for what was perceived by fans as highly negative tactics. Faris Ramli, so often talismanic for the Lions, started on the bench, and ended the tournament having played just 181 minutes of football. Alongside him was Zulfahmi Arifin, top assist provider in the Singapore Cup this season and one of Singapore’s 2012 Suzuki Cup winners, who had found himself used even more sparingly over the course of this year’s edition.

The game kicked off, and the Lions settled into their desperately familiar defensive shape- one could be forgiven for thinking they were watching a V. Sundramoorthy side from 2016. As expected, Malaysia started the brighter, with Singapore goalkeeper Hassan Sunny rushing off his line in the ninth minute to thwart Faisal Halim before saving smartly from Ruventhiran Vengadesan on the rebound. It wasn’t long before Faisal was at it again, testing Hassan again just before the 20 minute mark.

Soon enough, the opener arrived. Shah Shahiran, preferred by Nishigaya over Zulfahmi in midfield, was far too casual outside his own area, allowing the ball to be pinched off him. Having been bailed out on that occasion by van Huizen, the ball found its way back to him, and the Tampines man, rather than playing the simple ball into Song, chose to flick it back infield into the path of Safawi Rasid. The Malaysian frontman said thank you very much, surging past the limp challenges of van Huizen and Shah himself, before firing in a cross which Darren Lok converted at the near post. 1-0.

Nishigaya responded by hauling Shah off at the break for the more attacking-minded Shawal, but Malaysia soon struck again. As fate would have it, Shawal himself this time gifted possession to Malaysia outside the box, and Stuart Wilkin’s fairly tame effort from a mile out flew right through Hassan Sunny, who surely had to do better from there.

A third, and a third defensive capitulation, was soon to come. Shakir Hamzah played an incredibly risky ball into van Huizen outside the Singapore area, which he was lucky to get away with. The wingback duly responded by presenting possession straight back to the Harimau Malaya, who exchanged a couple of quick passes before Wilkin found himself free in the box, cooly finishing past Hassan for 3-0.

Singapore did grab one back as Amy Recha raced on to a superb chipped through ball from Shahdan Sulaiman to square for substitute Faris, who finished with aplomb past Syihan, almost as if to underline the mind-boggling decision of Nishigaya and his coaching staff to drop a man who starred at the previous edition.

They wouldn’t even get the last say, though, as Sergio Aguero took advantage of some genuinely laughable Singapore defending to score Malaysia’s fourth. The move started with Haqimi Azim breezing beyond Hariss Harun on halfway as if he wasn’t there, before finding himself in a two v two, and the entirety of the Singapore half to work with. He worked the ball to Lee Tuck, who managed to draw Anu away from his man as he rushed in to try pinch the ball in what can only be described as shockingly poor decision making. Aguero, kept onside by a hapless Singapore defender, in oceans of space, and who had been standing virtually unnoticed on the edge of the box for what felt like an age, received the ball, steadied himself, and fired one past a motionless Hassan Sunny into the corner- almost as if taking a practice shot in training.

And so that was that. Singapore, with their desperately defensive setup, were eliminated. As the famous adage goes, defensive football is acceptable only as long as it brings results- and an AFF Championship in which Singapore looked very ordinary against a depleted Myanmar team and minnows Laos before being outclassed by Malaysia and Vietnam is unacceptable. Questions surely have to be asked now of the coach Nishigaya, and the ones who hired him. Having not lasted more than a year at any of his previous managerial roles, apart from Mito HollyHock in Japan’s second tier, the Lions boss boasts a win record of just 28% at Mito, and 37% at his next club SC Sagamihara. His next job, somewhat embarrassingly for a current Singapore head coach, was at Matsumoto Yamaga’s U18 side. If rumours of India’s hugely successful former boss Stephen Constantine having applied, and been rejected, for the job are true, the FAS needs to take a long hard look at themselves and re-evaluate how much influence the MoU signed with the Japanese FA ought to have on local appointments.