Two first half goals proved enough for Singapore to overcome a spirited Papua New Guinea, but poor finishing by the Lions made it much closer than it should have been as they could only run out narrow 2-1 winners at the Hougang Stadium.
After a shaky start, where Singapore’s defence looked to be still in the dressing room, the Lions started to impose themselves against a team ranked fifty places below them and hadn’t played a game since 2012.
Local nerves were settled in the 16th minute, after the lively Sahil Suhaimi jinxed his way across the edge of the penalty box, beating three lunging defenders before unleashing a rasping drive that went in off the post, despite the best efforts of the PNG keeper.
Things got even better for Singapore seven minutes later, after sustained pressure saw the ball worked out to the right wing. Shafiq Gani sent in a low curling cross with the outside of the boot, which striker Fazrul Nawaz tucked away nicely at the near post.
With Singapore getting into a good passing rhythm, the PNG players were finding it increasingly difficult to keep them at bay, resulting in a number of heavy tackles. One of those bone crunching challenges by Vanya Malagian on Zulfahmi Arifi, led to the LionsXII player being stretchered off and replaced by Suria Prakash after 36 minutes.
Singapore came close to increasing their lead from the resulting free kick, with central defender Baihakki Khaizan seeing his near post header flash across the goal face. He went even closer a few minutes later after his flick on from a corner came down onto the crossbar.
Still the power, pace and aggression of PNG, especially muscular centre forward George Slefendoras and the direct running of Tommy Sammy, managed to pose Singapore plenty of questions on the counter attack.
Despite a raft of half time substitutions disrupting Singapore’s rhythm, the Lions should have increased their lead further, with Shafiq Ghani and Prakash both guilty of poor misses. Then on 62 minutes the lively substitute Brad McDonald, formerly of Central Coast Mariners, went on a driving run before setting up fellow PNG midfielder Raymond Gunemba. Gunemba held off the attentions of two Singaporean defenders on the edge of the box to coolly slot home in the corner past substitute keeper Izwan Mahbud to set up a slightly nervy last half hour for the Lions.
Indeed, PNG went close on a number of occasions, though Singapore could and probably should also have added to their lead with Prakash among a number of Lions’ players guilty of more wasteful finishing. Despite the narrow nature of the victory, assistant coach Aide Iskandar, who was deputising for the unwell Bernd Stange, was happy overall and was particularly pleased with the performances of the five debutants: defenders Fadli Kamis and Al Qaasimy Rahman, midfielders Suria and Amirul Adli and striker Shameer Aziq.
“Their call-ups are opportunities for them to prove themselves, and I think they all gave decent accounts of themselves tonight,” he said.
“Playing lower-ranked teams like PNG is never easy despite what the rankings suggest, because they are underdogs, and underdogs always want to prove themselves, and have nothing to lose,” continued Askander.
The Lions can certainly expect a tougher test as they take on Hong Kong in a second friendly on Tuesday night and may need to be a little more clinical in front of goal to achieve another positive result as they prepare for the year-end Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup.