By Gabriel Tan
While the Causeway Challenge has officially been billed as a two-legged friendly encounter between two arch-rivals, Friday's game at the Jalan Besar Stadium was played with fierce intensity and was marked by pre-match violence between opposing sets of fans.
Despite the hosts dominating early proceedings, Harimau Malaya took a two-goal lead inside the opening hour through substitute Azamuddin Akil and captain Safiq Rahim, who scored a peach of a freekick.
However, controversy soon took over as Ng Kai Lam awarded the hosts a penalty for an innocuous challenge by Khairul Fahmi Che Mat on Khairul Nizam, and while Qiu Li's spot-kick was saved, the referee immediately penalised Aidil Zafuan for what was said to be dissent and gave Singapore an indirect freekick inside the area.
From 15 yards out, Shahdan Sulaiman curled home a nice effort to pull one back, before Singapore completed their comeback deep in injury-time when Qiu fired a terrifc strike from the edge of the area into the top corner.
But rather than focus on the curious refeering decisions, Rajagobal decided to focus on the positives from his side's performance.
"I definitely feel we deserved to win, simple as that," he said after the game. "We came here to play with a young squad, I'm happy and we should have won the match.
"We started off slowly, Singapore, as usual, played aerial balls and we had to absorb all the attacks. I made a change because we knew we needed a bit of penetration down the flanks and from that change, we scored in the 43rd minute [through Azamuddin].
"In the second half, we picked up where we left off, the boys played well and we went further ahead through a beautiful freekick from our captain."
Rajagobal was adamant he was not going to outrightly criticise Ng for the awarding and the penalty and freekick, and maintained Aidil had his full backing.
"From where I was seated, I don't think it was a penalty but the referee is the one who makes the decisions." the former Malaysia international added. "He was closer [to the incident].
"That penalty was saved by Khairul Fahmi and according to Aidil, he was happy and said 'yes' and all of a sudden a freekick and a yellow card was given.
"I hope he [Aidil] is telling the truth, I have to believe my player but that goal turned it around and Singapore managed to equalise."
With the return leg at the Shah Alam Stadium just three days away, Rajagobal expects another exciting game and is expecting a couple of his players to prove their worth once again.
"Why not?" Rajagobal replied when asked if he would be tempted to start Azamuddin, who made a real impact after coming on. "He performed well and it's his first time playing in such a situation.
"He adapted to the pressure and played well, he gave us offensive runs and nobody knew where this player had come from. It's good for him and I feel happy from him playing in the Premier League [with Pahang] and coming in [to the national team] and performing at such a level.
"Norshahrul [Idlan Talaha] also did well. I didn't have him the last time [when Malaysia lost to Singapore in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers] and he really made a difference.
"Now I'm looking forward to another good game at the beautiful atmosphere of the Shah Alam Stadium."
Singapore coach Radojko Avramovic admitted he was pleased with the way his side started the game, although he conceded his side kept the ball better after the second-half introductions of seasoned veterans Qiu, Shi Jiayi, Daniel Bennett and Mustafic Fahrudin.
"The team that started the game was a good young team," Avramovic said. "Before they [Malaysia] scored the first goal in the first half, we were dominating and had many chances we should have scored.
"In the second half, we played the more experienced players and we tried to keep the ball better and pass it around. That's what we managed to do."
LIONSXII youngster Khairul Nizam put in an impressive shift after coming on in the 71st minute and troubled the Harimau backline with his aerial prowess. Apart from the questionable penalty he earned, the 21-year-old also could have won another spot-kick after going down under another challenge from Fahmi, and Avramovic has hinted he may start in the return leg.
"When Nizam came on, he has that quality in the air, and he caused a bit of a problem for Malaysia," the Serbian coach added.
"I think in the next game, he will be in the first eleven and there will be other players who will probably get that opportunity too."
It will be interesting to see if Nizam gets the nod to lead the Lions attack on Tuesday, or if Avramovic will go with experienced striker Aleksandar Duric, who has been called up for the game in Selangor.