Toothless Lions displays hint at far bigger attacking issues for Singapore

Singapore have sorely missed the presence of the injured Ikhsan Fandi - their leading scorer in the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers - in recent defeats to Palestine and Uzbekistan. Lionel Ng/Getty Images

A campaign that promised plenty for Singapore has unraveled within a matter of four days.

While the immediate cost could be a failure to qualify for either the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 AFC Asian Cup, recent 4-0 and 5-0 defeats to Palestine and Uzbekistan respectively suggest the Lions have bigger, long-term problems.

Reaching the World Cup was always going to be out of Singapore's reach. Even getting to the next Asian Cup in China is probably a bridge too far, given they have not qualified for the last nine editions dating back to 1988. But before Tatsuma Yoshida's charges resumed qualifying action on Friday it had been a campaign of positives.

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Despite their status as the lowest-ranked team in Group D, Singapore found themselves third on the table, understandably behind Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan but creditably ahead of Palestine and Yemen, having claimed seven points off the latter two in 2019 before the coronavirus halted play.

Now, following two heavy losses, the best they can hope for now is to finish second-from-bottom given they are unlikely to add to their haul in Friday's final qualifier against heavyweights Saudi Arabia.

After such chastening results, improvement can be expected from all over the park. It is in their attack, however, where real concerns are starting to creep in. Unlike in other departments, the Lions do not have -- and have not had for awhile now -- any depth.

Singapore were dealt a real blow when leading scorer Ikhsan Fandi was ruled out with injury.

The fact that his most obvious replacement for the campaign-resuming tie against Palestine was his younger brother Ilhan Fandi is of concern. An 18-year-old with just over 20 professional matches under his belt and yet to win his first senior cap until that point.

There is no doubting Ilhan's precocious talent. He should one day be leading the Lions attack alongside Ikhsan.

Nonetheless, throwing him into a high-stakes World Cup qualifier for his international debut speaks as much about his talent, as it does about Singapore's lack of alternatives.

Even if he had produced a match-winning display, a team can only be stronger with competition. The Lions do not have another player that could be classified as an out-and-out striker in the rest of the 26-man squad.

In goal, Izwan Mahbud and Hassan Sunny are constantly jostling for the number one jersey. After the defence leaked four goals against Palestine, Yoshida could at least introduce the experienced Baihakki Khaizan in the next game to see if it made any difference. Zulfahmi Arifin, Hazzuwan Halim and Hafiz Abu Sujad were brought into the midfield for the meeting with Uzbekistan.

The changes did not reap a different result but at least there were alternatives.

How was the frontline tweaked following that first loss to Palestine? Yasir Hanapi -- a midfielder by trade who has to his credit improved his attacking abilities in recent seasons -- was pushed further forward alongside Faris Ramli, a match-winning winger but hardly a player accustomed to being the focal point in attack.

This is by no means a case of finger-pointing. Neither at players who were out of their depth -- or position for that matter -- nor at Yoshida, who can only play the hand that was dealt.

Yet, each time Yoshida casts his eye at the talent on offer in the Singapore Premier League, he would be able to see options in goal, defence and midfield, but not in attack.

From the 181 goals so far in the 2021 SPL season, only about a third (61) have been scored by players eligible to represent the Lions. Gabriel Quak (8) and Yasir (6) -- neither are strikers -- lead the way.

In contrast, Japan's J1 League and South Korea's K League 1 -- widely regarded as two of the best domestic competitions in Asia -- have had 73 and 65% of their goals scored by local players. Even if Singapore were to look closer to home at a more similar level of play, the Malaysia Super League boasts a slightly healthier 38% in the same statistical category.

The situation is perhaps best highlighted by a club like Tanjong Pagar United, who, apart from a solitary Khairul Amri strike, have had all their goals this term come from their four imports.

It is true that clubs are not necessarily obliged to operate for the benefit of the national team. Tampines Rovers and Hougang United are well within their rights to sign a Boris Kopitovic or Tomoyuki Doi in their own quest for success.

But if the quality is available, there is nothing stopping a club from choosing a local to lead the line. Amri and ex-Singapore captain Shahril Ishak are perfect examples from years gone by.

This is by no means a predicament that can be solved overnight. From imposing mandatory number of young local players to be fielded by clubs to revisiting the polarising scheme of naturalising foreign stars, much has been tried and more will follow.

Not shying away from the fact that this is a problem that continues to plague Singapore football -- highlighted by those losses to Palestine and Uzbekistan -- would be a good start in addressing it.