With AFF Suzuki Cup 2018 fast approaching, FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan picks out five key lessons from Singapore’s 2-1 friendly win over Cambodia.
It was the proverbial game of two halves at the National Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh on Tuesday evening.
Having shown greater energy and intent from the opening whistle, it was Cambodia who took a 17th-minute lead when a dangerous cross by Sath Rosib ricocheted off the luckless Ho Wai Loon and into the back of his own net.
But, following the restart, the visitors showed greater urgency and duly equalised through Jacob Mahler a minute after the hour mark, before fellow youngster Ikhsan Fandi netted the winner with 16 minutes remaining.
So, what can both sides take away from the clash with the Suzuki Cup less than a month away?
1) The Honda revolution continues
With the new A-League season set to kick off this Friday, it was no surprise that Keisuke Honda was absent from the Cambodia dugout as he prepares to make his Melbourne Victory.
Instead, it was his trusted coaching companion Felix Dalmas who was left barking out the orders by the touchline and it was clear that the Cambodians are still attempting many of the ideas that had been implemented in Honda’s first game in charge against Malaysia last month.
There was the determination to play the ball out from the back at any costs which did see them give possession away occasionally and invite pressure upon themselves, but adopting a new style of play is a long-term process and there were instances where they had their opponents chasing shadows when they did pull it off.
Furthermore, it also seems like Honda is keen on doing away with Cambodia’s previous overreliance on a handful of stars with the continued introduction of fresh faces.
Chan Vathanaka and Prak Mony Udom both started on the bench and, instead, it was left to the likes of Reung Bunheing, Brak Thiva and Kouch Dani to impress.
2) Ikhsan is ready to lead the line on his own
As one of the sons of Singapore legend and current coach Fandi Ahmad, there will always be plenty of attention on Ikhsan Fandi, even more so when he is deployed as the spearhead of the Lions attack as they build towards a major tournament.
The Young Lions hitman may still only be 19 but is considerably experienced given it is now his third year as a professional, and has no shortage of speed, strength and skill.
Granted, he will have a tougher time breaking down the defences of Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines at the Suzuki Cup but, against Cambodia, Ikhsan more than held his own despite regularly being double-teamed by Hong Pheng and Soeuy Visal.
He did spurn a couple of chances but never stopped trying and it was fitting he scored the winner in the way that he did, refusing to give up on a lost cause and winning possession off Pheng before poking his shot past the onrushing Um Vichet.
3) Cambodia need to learn how to build on and hold onto a lead
For the second time in three matches, Cambodia got off to a perfect start and looked on course to causing a real upset against one of Southeast Asia’s traditional heavyweights.
Last month, a stunning Visal volley put them in front against Malaysia, only for Harimau Malaya to hit back with three goals in the second half.
Likewise on Tuesday, while it may have been an own-goal that handed them the advantage, they had been good value for their lead up till that stage.
Both times, however, Cambodia went back into their shells the moment the momentum appeared to shift as their opponents looked to mount a fightback, almost to the point where it seemed inevitable.
If Honda is to take the Cambodians to the next level, then he will also have to address the mental aspect of the game and ensure they continue to play with the same confidence and desire regardless of the situation they find themselves in.
4) More questions than answers for Fandi still
In a good way, Singapore’s two friendlies over the past week perhaps have put more questions than answers in front of Fandi.
Having once more opted to blood the youngsters, the Lions coach was rewarded with some impressive performances.
Ikhsan netted the winner after 18-year-old Mahler scored the equaliser having coming on as a halftime substitute, while Zulqarnaen Suzliman produced another accomplished display at right-back.
The headache, a positive one at that, for Fandi now is to decide whether to go with the in-form youngsters who could certainly feel the pressure once the Suzuki Cup gets underway, or turn to the tried and tested veterans like Shahril Ishak, Khairul Amri and Baihakki Khaizan, who have the experience of having done it all before.
5) Momentum could be key for Singapore
It is worth noting that for 12 months from November 2016, Singapore played 14 games without a single victory.
In this time, they were eliminated from the 2016 Suzuki Cup with no points from three matches, and also finished bottom of their group in the final round of qualifiers for the AFC Asian Cup 2019.
And yes, with no disrespect to Fiji, Mongolia and Cambodia, they do not exactly pose the toughest tests but the fact of the matter is that – for the first time in a long while – the Lions have won three games on the trot.
As mentioned earlier with Cambodia, the mental battle can sometimes be more difficult to win than the physical battle and you cannot put a price on a positive dressing room atmosphere heading into a tournament.
So, while it may “only” have been victories over Fiji, Mongolia and Cambodia, these three triumphs could just be a huge factor in how the Singaporeans approach their Suzuki Cup opener against 2016 runners-up Indonesia on November 9.
Photo credit: Football Federation Cambodia & Football Association of Singapore