SINGAPORE: Four-time ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup champions Singapore may find themselves cast as underdogs ahead of this year's competition, but some members of the footballing fraternity believe Fandi Ahmad's side can still spring a surprise or two.
The Lions have failed to move past the group stages in the last two editions of the tournament and have been thrust into a group containing the likes of reigning champions Thailand, dark horses Indonesia and a Philippines side led by former England boss Sven Goran Eriksson. Minnows Timor-Leste round off Group B.
Singapore have two home fixtures at the National Stadium in this year's campaign, beginning with Indonesia on Nov 9 and Timor-Leste on Nov 21.
Singapore have not won a competitive fixture since a 2-1 victory over Cambodia three years ago, sinking to a lowly 165th in the FIFA world rankings (as of Oct 25).
But those whom Channel NewsAsia spoke to said that the Lions have a decent shot in the tournament.
"We are in a tough group but I still have the belief that this time we can get through the first round - not by much, but merely because of the hunger that the players should have from the previous failures," said former Lions goalkeeper Shahril Jantan, who was part of the squad that won the 2004 edition.
Progression from the group stage could see the Lions potentially face Vietnam, Myanmar or bitter rivals Malaysia in the semi-finals.
Singapore first won the tournament in 1998, when it was known as the Tiger Cup. It won again in 2004, 2007 and 2012.
Former Lions midfielder Noor Ali, who was part of that side, recalled how that team was written off by the public before the competition even began.
"Nobody gave us a chance before the tournament," he said.
"It's better that people write you off; at the end of the day, you are motivated to go out and prove people wrong."
OPENING GAME KEY
Marko Kraljevic, head coach of Singapore Premier League side Balestier Khalsa, pointed to the Lions' opening home fixture with Indonesia as the game which could decide Singapore's fortunes.
"The first game will be the biggest one; if you win you get lots of confidence," said Kraljevic.
"If Singapore can beat Indonesia, the chances to qualify from the group will be high."
But the Indonesians might prove a tough nut to crack, even if the Lions have homeground advantage.
"It’s Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand; I just think they are too strong for the other nations right now," said former Singapore international John Wilkinson.
"Thailand have hit that plateau, they galloped on about three, four years ago. They are at another level than the other Southeast Asian nations. Indonesia have already kicked on and ... Malaysia are looking better than in the last few years.
"But it's the Suzuki Cup and anything can happen. I wouldn't be surprised if Singapore made it to the semis - but I certainly wouldn't bank on it."
The Thais have won the regional tournament a total of five times and are the only nation to have clinched the trophy more times than Singapore.
THE FANDI FACTOR
Former Lions legend Fandi has been entrusted with the task to lead the Singapore side at the upcoming tournament, after being appointed as interim head coach in May this year.
He took over from V Sundramoorthy, who had been in charge of the Lions for almost two years.
Fandi's reign got off to a solid start as a new-look Lions stayed unbeaten in their first four international friendlies - with a draw against Mauritius, followed by wins over minnows Fiji, Mongolia and Cambodia. The team have just returned from a training camp in Japan.
And according to local football blogger Ko Po Hui, there are already signs that the Lions may have turned a corner.
"The Lions are playing with more confidence and have shown more spirit in the last few matches under Fandi, as compared to the pragmatic and conservative approach of Sundram," said Ko, who has been covering local football for more than 20 years.
Former Home United coach Aidil Sharin agreed with this view.
"I can see that these players are enjoying their football now under coach Fandi," he said. "Watching their friendly games, I see their desire to win."
Shahril Jantan, who played under the 56-year-old during the former's time as SAFFC head coach, lauded Fandi's man-management skills.
"Just by having Fandi in the team generates that respect among players; and this was missing with the previous coaches," said Shahril.
"He speaks to the players a lot and that helps the players to feel taken care of, giving them the confidence that the coach is always there for them."
But what will ultimately be key will be the experienced players in the squad stepping up, said Noor Ali.
"We have people like Safuwan Baharudin, Hariss Harun - these players are playing overseas," he said.
"The strong point about this team is that there are a lot of players out there performing well. Gabriel Quak too has shown promise on his return to the national fold. That's very positive for the team."
Shahril also agrees on this point about leadership and experience.
"If these players who are the backbone of the team can perform to their abilities, they may be able to carry the team far," he said.
"Fandi can only do so much. In the end it is the players who are on the pitch - whether they are mere passengers or they put their heart into the matches."