16 August 17 The Straits Times by JONATHAN WONG&NBSP;IN KUALA LUMPUR
To say the odds are against Singapore's SEA Games footballers in their crunch tie against Malaysia would be a big understatement.
The Young Lions looked toothless in their 0-2 opening loss to Myanmar on Monday, have won just three times in 17 matches since March and will face what is set to be a packed Shah Alam Stadium and a partisan crowd baying for a statement win from the hosts tonight.
The Republic can ill afford back-to-back defeats to open their campaign if they harbour any hope of progressing from Group A and it is a testing backdrop for coach Richard Tardy to operate.
He said: "We need a good result. If we lose, then 90 per cent we are out of the semi finals."
His line-up against Myanmar had prioritised defensive solidity with midfielders Illyas Lee and Joshua Bernard Pereira tasked to screen their back-line and wingers Muhaimin Suhaimi and Haiqal Pashia ordered to track back.
But that left 18-year-old striker Ikhsan Fandi, the team's main goal threat, stranded up front.
SINGAPORE V MALAYSIA SEA GAMES HEAD-TO-HEAD
1989 (KUALA LUMPUR)
Singapore 1 Malaysia 3 (final) 1999
(BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN)
Singapore 2 Malaysia 1 (group)
2003 (HO CHI MINH CITY)
Singapore 0 Malaysia 2 (group)
Singapore 1 Malaysia 1 (group)
Singapore 0 Malaysia 0 (group)
Singapore 1 Malaysia 1 (group)
Singapore 2 Malaysia 1 (third-place play-off)
Tardy acknowledged this and experimented in yesterday's training with a 3-4-1-2 formation that had striker Taufik Suparno joining Ikhsan in attack. There might also be a place in the starting line-up for Balestier Khalsa forward Hanafi Akbar who offers guile and creativity.
Tardy said: "Malaysia play three at the back and there is space if we can be fast in our transition and ball movement. For set pieces, we have good size in Irfan (Fandi) and Ikhsan and have to use that too."
About 8,000 fans turned up for Malaysia's 2-1 win against Brunei on Monday and a far bigger crowd is expected at the Shah Alam venue, which can seat 80,000 supporters.
It promises to be a charged climate unlike anything the Young Lions have experienced.
The 22-year-old Hanafi, part of Singapore's bronze-medal winning team at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games, said: "Playing in front of 6,000 people at the YOG was the biggest for me so this is going to be something different. But we as a team are ready."
Tardy is planning to bring the squad to the Shah Alam Stadium earlier than the 90 minutes required as stipulated by competition rules to "get them comfortable with the atmosphere".
Expectations of a seventh Games football gold for Malaysia is building. They have hosted the Games five times previously and reached the final as hosts all but once (1965 when they finished fourth) and won the gold twice (1977 and 1989) in front of their home fans.
Like the hosts, they were eliminated at the group stage of the 2015 Games in Singapore but the Harimau Muda have since made the headlines for the right reasons.
They won their group and finished ahead of Thailand and Indonesia in the Asian Football Confederation Under-23 qualifiers to seal their spot in the Finals for the first time, and possess promising talents like winger Safawi Rasid and striker Syafiq Ahmad.
But pressure works both ways. Singapore hold a slight edge against their Causeway rivals in this competition since losing to Malaysia in the 1989 final. Both sides have faced each other six times since with Singapore's record reading two wins, three draws and one loss. In their last clash at the biennial Games, Singapore beat Malaysia 2-1 for the bronze medal in 2013 in Myanmar.
Ong Kim Swee's men are also under the microscope of their own fans after labouring to beat minnows Brunei. He said: "Getting the three points in the first game is very important. I am not so concerned, I believe in the second or third game they will get much better."
Ikhsan, whose father Fandi Ahmad, the former national captain, will be in the crowd tonight, said: "There's pressure on them too. If we can defend well and the crowd gets anxious and want goals, they might start booing their team and that will motivate us even more."
MALAYSIA V SINGAPORE
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