Iraq started the stronger of the two sides, keeping possession well, with Nashat Akram being particularly influential. Despite the complaints of their coach, Zico, about the unsuitability of Jalan Besar’s synthetic pitch for use in World Cup qualifiers, Iraq showed more skill and better movement on the carpet. The Iraqis controlled play throughout the game, missing several close-range chances in the first half, with resolute defending and some great saves from Lionel Lewis keeping Singapore in the match. Singapore were tentative early on, and playing a high line in defence, presumably to capitalise on the Lions’ greater speed and familiarity with the Jalan Besar pitch. However, Iraq soon discovered that they could hit long, direct balls to find players one-on-one against the usually smaller, shorter Singapore defenders.
Winger Qiu Li, supposedly suffering from digestive problems after the Lions’ sojourn to Kunming, China, was largely ineffective and replaced at halftime. The same malady kept Shi Jiayi out until he came on to replace Mohamed Hafiz in the 57th minute, also with limited effect. The wingers’ inability to beat their defenders and cross, combined with Shaiful Esah’s lack of providing useful corners and free kicks, meant striker Aleksander Duric was starved of service. Zico had publicly mentioned Singapore’s over-reliance on the 41-year-old, but the tactics of his team belied this contention, keying on Duric’s providers, not Duric himself.
A high point of the match for Singapore was the play of young defender Muhammad Safuwan bin Baharudin. He provided good coverage of Iraq’s front men, combining well with steady veteran Daniel Bennett, and making a couple of saving tackles and blocks to keep the match scoreless. He played beyond his years and stature, not backing down from the challenges of the larger, more experienced Iraqi players.
Iraq, meanwhile, kept up the pressure at the start of the second half and finally broke through in the 50th minute when striker Ala’a Abdul-Zahra headed in from a flick-on from Akram.
The goal seemed to prompt the home side, with Mustafic Fahrudin and Shi Jiayi endeavouring to carve out space for teammates to run into. Iraq is (largely) a dry country, and the high humidity in the Lion City would be expected to sap some of the visitor’s strength as the match got deeper into the second half. Jiayi, still looking fresh despite his tummy troubles, began causing problems, drawing plenty of fouls in dangerous areas by running at the tiring defenders. Time and again, though, Singapore was unable to capitalise.
Captain Younis Mahmoud sealed the Iraqi win in the 86th minute. Another long hoof up field caught the Singapore backline napping and ’keeper Lewis out of position, apparently glancing off the unaware Younis’ right foot and bouncing into the net. From the stands of the stadium it appeared to be a complete misplay by Lewis, but by viewing the replay on television you can see that it was a lucky (for Iraq) bounce off a player in a dangerous position. Perhaps Lewis could have been positioned a little better, but that judgment may be harsh. With the goal disappeared Singapore’s chances of three points, and perhaps of qualifying from Group A.
Singapore’s best chance of the second half fell to Shahril Ishak in the 64th minute, but he was unable to control the unexpected gift of possession in front of goal, and the ball bounced off of him and over the crossbar. The Lions continued to press forward in search of a goal, but it simply wasn’t their night, and the Iraqi defence proved too resolute and well-positioned. A disappointment to be sure, but they were beaten by the better team.
Singapore’s next qualifier is a home match versus Jordan at the same venue on October 11th.