From ownership of food to football, Singapore and Malaysia’s never-ending brother-esque rivalry will be renewed this weekend as the Lions prepare host the Malaysian Tigers at the National Stadium on Friday night.
On paper, it’s being billed as a match to celebrate the relationship between both nations – and there’s probably a fair amount of truth in that. But with the AFF Suzuki Cup looming closer, there’s so much more at stake, as far as this bout is concerned.
It’s been a difficult year for Datuk Ong Kim Swee, since he officially took over as national team boss in January, and he’s had to deal with battles that were non-existent 12 months ago. Just as he was looking to revive the fortunes of the national team, their disastrous Oceania Tour culminated in him being slated by different individuals across the country, including Johor DT owner Tunku Ismail. Soon after, four JDT players officially announced their retirement from international football, including skipper Safiq Rahim as well as central defender Aidil Zafuan. It goes without saying that both men were key components of OKS’ plans for the national team. Merely seven months into the job, his plans were dealt with a major blow.
If that isn’t bad enough, OKS has had to deal with a barrage of injury issues, before JDT handed another blow via the entire ‘recall fiasco’ – you should be well aware of that by now. But he was finally given four days to work with his full squad, and he has now travelled to Singapore with 25 players, leaving five, including Khairul Fahmi, back home. This time around, there’s a renewed sense of excitement about the squad, with half-Malaysian striker Darren Lok in line to make his national team debut. A large part of the excitement stems from the fact that Lok has only made one appearance for JDT II, which essentially means fans have barely seen what he has to offer.
All eyes will also be on Baddrol Bakthiar, who is being touted to permanently take over Safiq Rahim’s playmaker duties for Malaysia. Over the weekend, Penang FA’s Matias Cordoba praised Baddrol on Twitter, claiming he has been the best Malaysian player in the MSL this year. Whether you agree or disagree with Cordoba’s claims, there’s no denying the fact that Baddrol is up there with the best. His influential performances have been the fulcrum of Kedah’s powerful run in the MSL as well as in the Malaysia Cup. But the onus now lies with Ong – he’s worked with him for years now and he knows what it takes to bring out the best in Baddrol.
Let’s face it, it’s probably unfair to blame Malaysia’s inconsistent form on Ong Kim Swee alone, but the fact is, they’ve only won three out of nine matches under the ex-Harimau Muda boss, this year. Friday night’s clash presents a key opportunity for him to improve that statistic, as well as inject some much needed optimism into the squad, ahead of the AFF Suzuki Cup at the end of this year.
The Lions themselves, have not had it easy over the last six months, losing four out of their fives games, including a narrow 2-1 defeat to Cambodia in July. But Sundramoorthy’s men looked much better in their clash against Bahrain last month, despite falling to a 1-3 loss. Hariss Harun looked incredible in that match, and is expected to be at the heart of everything, yet again, when they host Malaysia on Friday night.
But Singapore themselves face a problem, that’s somewhat similar to what Malaysia are facing at the moment – the absence of a prolific goalscorer. Make no mistakes, Khairul Amri has been a fantastic servant for SG football, but their over-dependence on him leaves them with very little options, going forward. Iqbal Suhaimi though, could be the answer to their problems. The 23 year-old Hougang United striker has been tipped by Sundram to give his side a different dimension in attack, which suggests that he could be set to make his third appearance for the national team.
But of course, Singapore’s biggest strength lies in defence, where they house supremely experienced players in the form of Daniel Bennett, Baihakki Khaizan and even the ever-present Mustafic Fahruddin. In fact, Baihakki’s knowledge of Darren Lok, could be very useful in coping with Malaysia’s ‘surprise’ factor on Friday night.
“When he [Lok] came to JDT, he was very quiet knowing that he was from England. But he had no problem adapting to life in Johor, and was quick to put himself about and be among the locals,” Baihakki was quoted as saying by ESPN FC. “You can see his courage and the physical presence help his game, but his true quality is still a question mark because he just got his passport and only played a few competitive minutes for the club. But he seems to suit a one-touch passing game where he likes to go down the flanks. He’s also quite a dribbler, and we must be careful of that,” he added.
Of course, beating Malaysia at the National Stadium would be a major morale boost, but for Sundram, this is a key part of his preparations for the Suzuki Cup. They’ve been drawn into a tough group, featuring defending champions Thailand, Philippines as well as Indonesia. And Sundram knows that if they don’t starting ticking soon, beginning with Friday’s bout against Malaysia, things could get ugly and frustrating, come November.