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Late goal mars Lions’ 2-1 win over Guam in 2026 World Cup first-round first-leg qualifier

SINGAPORE – Up till the 89th minute, as the Lions held a 2-0 advantage in Thursday’s World Cup first-round qualifier against Guam, they looked assured, confident and could have patted themselves on the back for a job well done.

The fans had responded as well, full of voice in the stands.

And then in the 90th minute, the whole narrative was erased – along with the Lions’ clean sheet – when Guam captain Jason Cunliffe pulled a goal back from a free kick just outside the box.

First it was silence, and then boos rang out – aimed at the Guam players – as the scoreboard read Lions 2 Guam 1. Party spoilers.

For most of the evening, it looked like Takayuki Nishigaya and his Lions had played the perfect game and they were barely troubled.

Countless chances were created but only two were put away.

And this could come back to haunt the Lions when they play Guam in the return leg next Tuesday in Dededo, although the away-goal rule will not apply for the qualifiers. 

“Conceding that goal at the end was unacceptable and we need to regroup and refocus for the second leg,” said Jacob Mahler, who scored the Lions’ second. “It’s never nice to be in control of the game and then concede a sloppy goal.

“We were in control and dominated the game and we could have scored more goals. But that’s football for you. You got to keep your focus for 90 minutes and a slip in concentration can always cause this type of thing.”

Singapore coach Nishigaya, who got his seventh win as Lions boss in his 18th match in charge, was more upbeat.

“I see this as a positive win for Singapore, we were definitely in control for the entire 90 minutes, and we won.

“This means we’re one step ahead of Guam even though we’re going into their territory for the second leg. 

“What’s very important for us now is to make sure that we are recovered physically and mentally and that we’re 100 per cent ready for the next game.”

Guam coach Ross Awa was all smiles after the match.

He said: “We made some changes for the second half… and it definitely improved in our favour.

“We got a goal and that’s a positive for us going to our home.”

When asked about their mindset for the second leg, Awa responded: “In front of our home crowd, this is where our boys really perform.” 

The win was watched by President Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who went on the pitch before kick-off to greet both sides.

From the get-go, the 157th-ranked Lions – lined up in a 3-5-2 formation – were determined to make the most of the vocal backing and a pristine pitch against their opponents, who are 201st in the Fifa rankings.

They came close to scoring at least five times inside the opening half hour, with the team’s frontman Shawal Anuar’s profligacy the only black mark in the early exchanges.

But, if it was not the forward’s day, it was definitely the occasion for the defenders to show their worth.

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In the 35th minute, the Lions got the opener through a stunning strike by Christopher van Huizen from outside the box.

The Lion City Sailors fullback brought down a searching ball from inside his own half by centre-back Lionel Tan, beat a defender before finding the back of the net with aplomb.

Six minutes later, it was fellow defender Mahler who thumped a loose ball into the net after Guam failed to clear their lines from a corner.

Apart from a 27th-minute save from Hassan Sunny, who earned his 108th cap, the Lions were not frazzled.

Until the 39-year-old Cunliffe stuck a dagger.

Earlier, the 10,355 fans, who included 1,000 Team Nila volunteers, cheered when 20-year-old KMSK Deinze striker Ilhan Fandi came on as a substitute in the 60th minute.

His last appearance was against Vietnam on Dec 30, when he suffered a complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

While the Lions will be thankful for the win, the air of disappointment was palpable even as fans cheered the team.

Singapore will now need to ensure the late goal does not keep them away from a place in Round 2’s Group C with South Korea, China and Thailand.

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