Entering Wednesday's 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualifying opener on the back of their success in last December's AFF Suzuki Cup, Singapore were keen to open brightly as they fixed sights on qualification for only their second continental finals. However, the ambitious Lions were brought down to the earth after conceding four unanswered goals in Jordan.
The result marked their third consecutive defeat to Jordanin 17 months, having lost first 3-0 at home then 2-0 away in Asia's third qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. It is a fact which reflects the gap in class that exists between the city state and Asia's top sides, according to former international striker Aleksandar Duric.
"It shows that we have our work cut out if we are to join the continent's elite," the 42-year-old Tampines Rovers marksman told FIFA.com. "While we can play against our south east Asian neighbours with ease, we struggle on the bigger stage. The continental competitions requires faster pace, greater physical strengths and a better mentality."
According to Duric, the only way for Singapore to improve is to play with top Asian teams and gain exposure against strong opponents. "These matches provide us with valuable lessons, which we can learn to develop,” he continued. “We should get better prepared both mentally and physically, then we can expect to see improvements in our play.”
Consistency remains a problem for the Lions, a point borne out in all their three recent meetings with Jordan, when they conceded a single goal in the first half but collapsed in the second half. "Aside from building fitness and energy, we must keep concentration throughout the 90 minutes," he said.
Duric’s sentiments were echoed by Singapore's assistant coach Aide Iskandar in his post-match press conference. "We had a good first half," he said. "However, we made mistakes and conceded two quick goals at the start of the second half and it affected our plans for the rest of the game."
Singapore, in fact, entered a new era heading into the Jordan game, with former manager Radojko Avramovic leaving after the Suzuki Cup triumph. The 63-year-old Serbian achieved a lot in his decade in charge of Singapore, guiding the Lions to three regional championships and taking them to the third qualifying round of a FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign [South Africa 2010] for the first time.
"He did a great job with us," said Duric. “We are a small country with limited footballing resources, but under Avramovic we have become the most successful team in our region. It has been a challenge for the team to transform and rebuild after he left."
The difficulties were not helped by the recent international retirement of Duric, who has been the team’s leading striker with 27 goals in 54 international caps since representing Singapore in 2007. While there are a series of contenders from the current squad aiming to fill the void Duric has left, he singled out his club striking partner Khairul Amri as the man to shoulder the team's goal-scoring responsibility..
"Khairul is a good forward," he said of his Rovers team-mate, who was on target three times as they prevailed in the recent Suzuki Cup. "He is not big, but he possesses good technique and speed so he is a proven prolific goal-getter. It is time for the team to change, and we expect more youngsters to emerge and the new generation to complete a seamless transition."
Despite the opening blow against Jordan, Duric remains optimistic for his side to progress from their group which also features Oman and Syria. He said: “Our opponents are good teams, but after all they are not giants like Korea Republic and Japan so we have a chance.
“The next home game against Oman is a must-win match. We have to win all home games and also gain points away to finish the top two to qualify. The Asian Cup qualifying is a long road, so we are not out of it as long as we are well-prepared and continue to gain points,” he concluded.