SINGAPORE: It has been a long, agonising wait that has spanned almost a decade.
Since lifting the AFF Suzuki Cup for the fourth time in 2012, the Lions have not made the semi-finals of the competition.
Knocked out on home soil in 2014, eliminated without a win in 2016, and missing out after their final group stage match in 2018.
But because of the Philippines’ 1-2 defeat to Thailand earlier on Tuesday (Dec 14), Singapore did not have to wait for their group stage clash against Timor-Leste as previous wins against Myanmar (3-0), and the Philippines (2-1) were enough.
Regardless, the Lions would go on to rubber stamp their spot by eking out 2-0 victory over Timor-Leste later in the evening, courtesy of goals from Adam Swandi and Shakir Hamzah.
"I feel very happy with this achievement (of Singapore making the semi-finals). (It is) because of the boys' effort and the fans' voice that we can keep on going in our journey," said head coach Tatsuma Yoshida after the game.
Throughout the tournament, Yoshida has showed his willingness to make changes, and it was Adam who swept home in the fourth minute after good work from Song Ui-young.
But Timor-Leste, who were hammered 0-7 by Philippines in their last game, showed they were still a dangerous side. Minutes later, Lions custodian Hassan Sunny was forced into a point-blank stop with his feet.
The visitors threw caution to the wind and continued to go on the offensive. They were almost rewarded in the 20th minute, but Mouzinho’s shot was charged down.
Lions midfielder Hami Syahin then came close moments later, but his curler dropped tantalisingly wide.
Singapore started the second half strong and almost doubled their lead courtesy of Ikhsan Fandi.
However, the striker, who has already registered two goals for Singapore at the tournament, could only look on in disbelief as his shot rebounded off the post in the 52nd minute.
Timor-Leste responded almost immediately with a long-range effort from Yohanes Gusmao which fizzed just wide.
The Lions’ second came from an unlikely source in the 70th minute to the delight of the 8,500 strong crowd, as Shakir bundled home after a set-piece caused confusion.
While Yoshida was pleased with the win, he said that the showing left room for improvement.
"The boys tried to play their best, I respect them ... Of course, I am not satisfied with their performance, but I am proud of them."
With the win, the Lions sit second in Group A with nine points. They are level on points with the top-ranked Thais but behind on goal difference.
Singapore will face Thailand in their last group stage game on Saturday, and a win will seal top spot for the Lions.
Like Singapore, the Thais have yet to lose a game.
"Thailand is the match that we want to play and also its important to get the first place ... For us, this is a high challenge for us against Thailand because we've not been beating them for the past few years," said man-of-the-match Shakir.
"This is a test for us as a team, but I believe ... if we are one team, we can beat Thailand. We want first place in the group."
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