Singapore stars go missing in Lions' early AFF Suzuki Cup exit

After just 270 minutes in the Philippines, Singapore's bid for a record fifth AFF Suzuki Cup title came to an abrupt end after they finished bottom of Group A, and failed to qualify for the semifinals.

A 2-1 defeat to unfancied Indonesia was the disastrous end to a tournament where the Lions produced their worst results in the event's 20-year history.

The fallout from their early exit is likely to continue over the next few weeks, but what really went wrong for V. Sundramoorthy's side?

1. A nightmare start against the Azkals

There was plenty of optimism as Singapore kicked off their campaign against co-hosts Philippines in Bocaue on Nov. 19.

In the build-up to the tournament, many of Sundram's detractors had criticised what they perceived as an overly defensive approach.

However, the Lions showed against Philippines in that opening game that they were also looking to go forward, particularly dangerous down the left with Hafiz Abu Sujad and Shakir Hamzah linking up well.

All that, however, changed when Hafiz was shown a straight red shortly after the half-hour mark, forcing Sundram to change his approach, and play for a point.

There is no denying that Hafiz had caught Phil Younghusband in the chest with a reckless challenge, and the referee had every right to issue him his marching orders.

But, given he was already in the process of meeting the ball, and was caught unsighted as the Philippines' captain nipped in from the side, Hafiz might have been shown more leniency.

Either way, despite a dogged draw, thanks to some outstanding goalkeeping by Hassan Sunny, it was an inauspicious way to start the tournament.

2. Wasteful finishing vs. Thailand

Make no mistake about it. Singapore could, and perhaps should, have claimed a stunning victory over defending champions, and tournament favourites Thailand, on Nov. 22.

Again, Sundram received flak for setting up to defend against the Thais, but his plan to hit on the counter proved to be a clever ploy.

Moreover, just three days earlier, Indonesia had shocked War Elephants by equalising early in the second half, before losing 4-2 in a commendable performance.

For 88 minutes, Sundram's resilient backline, led by 38-year-old Daniel Bennett, kept Thailand at bay, and his attack remarkably had more clear-cut chances to score than the opposition.

Juma'at Jantan fired wide after being put through one-on-one, Izzdin Shafiq twice failed to get a shot away from a good position inside the box, while Shakir ventured forward, and forced Kawin Thamsatchanan into a fine save.

Then, with a minute remaining, the Thais made them pay by capitalising on a half-chance. Theerathon Bunmathan swung a dangerous ball into the area, and Sarawut Masuk nipped in front of Hassan to head home the winner.

3. Two costly lapses condemn Lions

It all came down to their final Group A game against the Indonesians at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

The Lions not only needed a positive result, but also required a favour from the Thais as they faced off against Philippines. The Azkals went into the final Group A game occupying the second qualifying spot.

At half-time, things were looking good for Singapore as they kept things tight at the back while taking the game to the Merah Putih. They held a 1-0 lead, courtesy of Amri's acrobatic volley from a Safuwan Baharudin flick-on.

But the story of the second 45 minutes mirrored their campaign as a whole. Ultimately, it was the reason behind them being booted out: profligacy in front of goal, and defensive lapses at crucial moments.

Three minutes after the restart, Amri was sent through into the box, but spurned the excellent opportunity to double his side's lead by shooting straight at Kurnia Meiga.

Then, Faris Ramli's failure to pick up his man allowed Andik Vermansyah to venture into the box, and lash home the equaliser.

Singapore again had chances to regain the lead, with Hariss Harun's firm header forcing Meiga into an excellent save, while Safuwan Baharudin wastefully nodded over from inside the six-yard box.

And, with five minutes remaining, the Lions went to sleep again after assuming the ball was certain to go out after Faritz Hameed had blocked Boaz Solossa's initial cross.

Boaz, however, did not give up and hooked the ball into the area while Faritz could only watch on helplessly. Bennett, Hariss and Madhu Mohana were all in the vicinity, but could not react in time, as Stefano Lilipaly lashed home the winner to send Indonesia through.

4. Sundram's lack of other options

Perhaps one justifiable criticism directed at Sundram was his reluctance to make changes when things were in the balance.

This was especially notable against the Indonesians when, despite needing a win to guarantee their progress, Sundram waited 14 minutes after the Garuda pulled level to make his first substitution.

Shahfiq Ghani was then brought on six minutes from the end before Gabriel Quak was introduced in added time, with both having little chance to make an impact.

Nonetheless, there's no denying that Sundram had to make the most of limited resources.

Had injured striker Fazrul Nawaz been available for selection, or if creative playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman had a full season of football under his belt and was fit enough to last 90 minutes, things might have been different.

Instead, Sundram had to hope his strongest eleven would be able to get the job done. If not, there were few better options as replacements.

5. Just not good enough

At the end of the day, even the most diehard of Singapore fans will struggle to deny the Lions were just not good enough, and give credit to Thailand and Indonesia.

It says a lot when their three players were a goalkeeper, a 38-year-old centre-back and a 22-year-old making his Suzuki Cup bow. That's Hassan, Bennett and promising midfielder M. Anumanthan.

The problems lie deeper than just failing to deliver at international level. That's especially so when you see professionals, who have come up through the development system of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) struggle to control a ball, and play a short pass.

It raises doubts over whether there is enough being done at youth level. The Lions now pale in comparison to former ASEAN minnows, like Cambodia and Myanmar, in basic skills and technique.

Then, there is also the apparent lack of hunger, and desire to fight for the flag emblazoned on their jerseys.

When the game against Indonesia was there for the taking, the likes of Hariss, Bennett and Hassan came to the fore, and raised their game, but too few of their teammates followed suit.

Instead of rising to the occasion, they shrank into their shells, and did themselves a great disservice, having produced commendable efforts against Philippines and Thailand.