A decade ago, you would have traveled a long way to find anyone willing, or foolish, enough to part with their money to back Singapore against continental giants such as Saudi Arabia.

Today, however, even the most daring pundits will hesitate to predict the outcome when the Lions meet the Sons of Deserts in Riyadh on 6 February in the opening game of the third round of Asian qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The passage of ten years has brought a very different Singapore team, with no stone left unturned in the quest to close in on Asia's big boys.

The progress made was underlined in qualifying for 2007 AFC Asian Cup, when they pulled off a stunning 2-0 win over eventual champions Iraq in their opening fixture, before later holding China to a goalless draw. Under Serbian coach Radojko Avramovic, the islanders continued their brilliant form in the preliminary qualifying rounds for South Africa 2010, sweeping past Palestine and Tajikistan to reach the continent's last 20 in the third round of preliminaries.

Now, despite being thrown into the deep end in Group 4, which also features three-time Asian champions Saudi Arabia, 1994 Asian Games gold-medalists Uzbekistan and Lebanon, Avramovic - 'Raddy', as he is affectionately named in his adopted country - is adaman determination of progressing to the qualifying final round of last ten.

"There are no easy groups at this level but we'll look to surprise the favourites in our section," said the former Yugoslav international, who took over the Lions in 2003. "Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan may be the favourites in our group but football is not just about the favourites. Otherwise the game wouldn't be as intriguing as it is."

Raddy upsets old employers
Avramovic would likely not have spoken with such confidence had it not been for his tremendous prior experiences with West Asian teams. Having guided the Kuwait junior team to the Sydney Olympics Games in 2000, he went on to replace Berti Vogts as coach of the senior national team, a role he held right up until his move to Singapore.

His knowledge of the Gulf outfit was underlined when Singapore secured a shocking 2-0 over the former team in a preparatory match in Muscat last Thursday in the first of the three scheduled friendlies during their 16-day overseas camp ahead of facing Saudi Arabia.

After a scoreless first half, Singapore broke the deadlock on the hour mark, Mustafic Fahrudin heading home a Shi Jiayi corner from close range. Just 12 minutes later, Aleksandar Duric sealed the win for the Lions by firing low and hard into the bottom right corner.

The win over the nine-time Gulf champions came as a timely morale-booster for Avramovic's charges, and the fact that he made only two changes from the squad that eliminated Tajikistan in Dushanbe in November proved that consistency of selection was paying dividends.

Next up, however, is the big one: the showdown with the Saudis. Yet while the 6 February fixture looms large and imposing on the horizon, centre-back Precious Emuejeraye summed up the team's spirits. "It will be a hard match but we are not looking at Saudi Arabia as the end point," he said. "We plan on going well beyond that."