SINGAPORE - Khairul Amri fired home the only goal of a tight contest as three-time champions Singapore booked their place in the AFF Suzuki Cup final with a 1-0 victory over the Philippines at the Jalan Besar Stadium last night.
The striker, who netted the winner for the Lions in their 2007 final triumph against Thailand, emerged as the hero once again when he was left unmarked on a quickly-taken free-kick by Shahdan Sulaiman in the 19th minute and fired home his second goal of the competition to give his side a 1-0 aggregate win.
The Lions dominated the opening half but the Philippines improved after the break although they rarely threatened to find an equalizer against the well-drilled Singapore defense.
It will be a third appearance in the final for coach Radojko Avramovic, who guided Singapore to victory in the ASEAN regional competition in 2004 and 2007.
“It’s absolutely great to get to the final and it is very nice that we have got there again,” said the Serbian, who has been in charge of the Lions since 2003.
Singapore’s starting line-up were unchanged from the goalless draw in the first leg in Manila last Saturday with Isa Halim coming in once again to play in central midfield in the absence of Shi Jiayi, who had travelled to Shanghai to deal with a family emergency.
Meanwhile, the Philippines sported only one change from the first leg as Jerry Lucena, who missed his team’s last two matches to return to his Danish club Esbjerg, replaced Jason De Jong in central midfield.
After a cautious start by both sides, Singapore gradually took control of the contest with Shaiful Esah firing just from 20 metres with the first real effort on goal in the 11th minute.
The Lions went close again in the 16th minute as Shaiful’s corner from the left was flicked on to Safuwan Baharuddin at the far post who failed to get a solid enough header to put the ball on target.
But the home side broke the deadlock just three minutes later after Shahdan’s quickly-taken free-kick from the left flank completely caught out the Filipino defense. He found Amri completely unattended 25 meters from goal and the striker had plenty of time and space to measure up his effort before he fired a unerring right-footed shot past a static Eduard Sacapano into the right hand corner of the net.
With the Azkal defense rocking, Singapore pressed forward in search of a second and they went close in the 21st minute when Shaiful’s shot from 20 metres flew just over the crossbar and again seven minutes later when Shahdan’s in-swinging free-kick was met by Baihakki Khaizan, whose header towards goal forced Sacapano into a save.
The Filiipino goalkeeper was called into action again in the 32nd minute as he came off his line to stop a through ball getting to Shahril Ishak and then scrambled back to his goalmouth to make a diving stop after Amri had gathered the clearance and driven the ball back on target.
Shortly after that the home side launched a quick counter-attack with Shahdan setting up Aleksandar Duric, whose shot from the left of the box was kept out by another good save by Sacapano.
The Philippines were unable to carve out a real opportunity until the 42nd minute when Phil Younghusband’s low drive was comfortably covered by goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud.
In stoppage time just before the interval, a long ball to James Younghusband on the right flank caught out the Singapore backline but Izwan was alert and he came out to the top corner of his box to get to the ball just ahead of the winger.
Fahruddin Mustafic was highly influential during the opening half but an injury forced the central midfielder off at half-time to be replaced by Fazrul Nawaz, while the Azkals brought in Emelio Caligdong for Patrick Reichelt in a bid to fire up their attack.
The Philippines came out in a more assertive fashion at the start of the second half but they could not find a way through the tightly marshalled Singapore defense.
There was little real danger at either end until the 71st minute when Sacapano made a sprawling save to deny Fazrul Nawaz’s angled shot from the right. The ball rebounded to Shahdan but he miskicked and allowed the Azkal defense to clear.
The Philippines launched a quick counter and Phil Younghusband went close with a shot on the run that was turned around the left upright by Izwan.
However, it was a rare moment of concern for the Lions who safely kept the visitors at bay in the remaining minutes to book their place in the Asean Football Championship final for a fourth time.
After the game, Philippines coach Michael Weiss lamented the loss of concentration that resulted in the goal.
“Their goal was a gift on our side because we have focussed on set pieces for the last 10 days and yet we conceded on a set piece,” said the German, who guided the Azkals to the last four for only the second time.*affsuzukicup.com
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