SINGAPORE – There were signs of improvement, but the national Under-19 football team also reverted to familiar weaknesses during the Under-20 Asian Cup qualification campaign in Tajikistan last week.
The 23-player squad returned on Monday after finishing third in Group I behind the hosts and Lebanon, but ahead of Cambodia. Tajikistan were the group winners and the only team in the group to progress to next year’s Finals in Uzbekistan.
The Cubs held sixth seeds Tajikistan to a goalless draw in their opening game and then drew 1-1 with Cambodia two days later, despite playing the final third of the game with a player down because of Raoul Suhaimi’s red card in the 66th minute. They ended their campaign with a 6-1 thumping by Lebanon.
Head coach Fadzuhasny Juraimi said he felt the players had “progressed quite a bit” from their Asean Football Federation Championship performance in July, when they lost to Cambodia (1-0), Timor-Leste (1-0) and Laos (3-1) but drew 0-0 with eventual champions Malaysia.
Asked for his assessment of their Asian Cup qualifying campaign: “The boys played with fighting spirit and fought hard, especially in the first two games, and in general I am quite satisfied.
“The (Football Association of Singapore) Under-21 league kicked off (in late July) before we left, and it helped me and my backroom staff identify new players that could strengthen the squad and provide competition to the boys who were already in the squad previously. It also improved the players’ match fitness a bit, compared to when we competed at the AFF Championship.”
The former national striker highlighted, however, that three months’ worth of competitive club-level matches were not sufficient in getting his players to peak physical condition after almost two full years of not playing the full 11-a-side game due to pandemic restrictions. This was telling against Lebanon, which was the team’s third match in five days.
“The boys need to adapt to this format, which is something they are not often exposed to,” said the 43-year-old coach.
“They played two very high-level matches at a good intensity, but in the third game with fatigue setting in, lapses in concentration started happening and Lebanon took their chances… There is still a lot of room for improvement.”