Substitute Khairul Amri's equaliser nine minutes from time eased a nation's worries, as Singapore held hosts Thailand 1-1 in the second leg of the ASEAN Football Championship Final on Sunday. The draw, coupled with Singapore's 2-1 first leg win last Tuesday, saw the Lions edge out Thailand 3-2 on aggregate to successfully defend their regional crown.
The triumph also put an end to Singapore's inferiority complex against their southeastern Asian rivals. Until their first leg defeat, Thailand had gone three decades unbeaten against Singapore in international A matches. With this win, Singapore, who first tasted success in the competition back in 1998, join Thailand (champions in 1996, 2000 and 2002) as one of only two sides to have won the tournament three times.
Singapore went into the decider having pocketed a 2-1 win on home soil five days earlier. Despite the lead, however, coach Radovan Avramovic's Lions were fully aware of the pressures and difficulties of playing at the formidable Supchalasai Stadium in Bangkok, which Thailand had developed into a strong fortress in a tournament where they had gone four games unbeaten.
Roared on by the 40,000 crowd, Thailand pressed hard for an opening goal and had the bulk of the possession in the early stages. With 37 minutes gone, their offensive efforts paid off as Pipat Thonkanya scored from a Datsakorn Thonglao pass to make it 2-2 on aggregate.
The hosts continued to look the better side after the interval, pinning the visitors back for the most part. However, Singapore defended resolutely and threatened on the counter-attack, and it was from one of these breaks that Khairul Amri's well-struck shot beat goalkeeper Kittisak Rawangpa to level the match and restore their aggregate lead.
Thailand threw everything forward in the remaining minutes, but playing without their talismanic striker Kiatisuk 'Zico' Senamuang, they were unable to keep their shots on target. Coach Avramovic cut a relieved figure at the post-match press conference. "It was a great game, a real final," said the Serbian. "We achieved what we wanted, and we expected the pressures and we coped without any problems."
Alam Shah: the rising star
While the nationwide excitement Singapore's conquest has sparked is certain to last for some time, coach Avramovic preferred not to consider what his side would have achieved without the prolific Noh Alam Shah. The powerful forward finished as the competition's MVP and top scorer, having netted 10 times to propel Singapore to the title.
The striker, who is currently plying his trade with Thai giants Tampines Rovers, failed to score Singapore's opening game, a goalless draw against Group B rivals Vietnam, but he bagged an impressive seven goals in an ensuing 11-0 defeat of Laos. The 26-year-old was on target again against Indonesia in the last group match, scoring the opener in a 2-2 draw that booked Singapore a place in the last four.
Alam Shah, who had scored a hat-trick in the previous edition's semi-final against Myanma two years ago, went on to save his side's blushes against neighbours Malaysia in the semi-final first leg , his ninth goal of this year's event earning Singapore a 1-1 draw. Then, in the first leg of the final, he scored the Lions' opening goal before winning them a penalty, which Mustafic Fahruddin converted to seal a 2-1 victory.
Upon receiving his two individual accolades, Alam Shah was quick to praise his team-mates and coach. "In the previous edition I was only sent on as a bench player so I am really happy to defend the title as one the team's backbone forces. It's nice to be recognized, but I must thank my teammates and the coach for putting the team into good shape."
Knockout stage fixtures and results:
Semi-final first leg:
23 January: Malaysia 1-1 Singapore
24 January: Vietnam 0-2 Thailand
Semi-final second leg:
27 January: Singapore 1-1 (5-4 after P.S.O) Malaysia
28 January: Thailand 0-0 Vietnam
Final first leg:
31 January: Singapore 2-1 Thailand
Final second leg:
4 February: Thailand 1-1 Singapore