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Safuwan Baharudin, Ikhsan Fandi return for Lions’ clashes with South Korea and Thailand

SINGAPORE – Takayuki Nishigaya will face his toughest assignment as Lions coach when Singapore take on Asian giants South Korea at the Seoul World Cup Stadium next week. But the Japanese tactician will at least be able to call upon his best squad yet with the return of several key players.

On Wednesday, defender Safuwan Baharudin and forward Ikhsan Fandi were named in the 24-man squad for the World Cup qualifiers away to South Korea on Thursday and at home against Thailand five days later at the National Stadium.

Singapore are ranked 155th in the world, while the South Koreans are 24th and the Thais are 112th. World No. 79 China complete Group C. The group winners and runners-up will advance to Asia’s third round of World Cup qualifiers and book their spots for the 2027 Asian Cup, while the other two teams head to the third round of Asian Cup qualifying.

Safuwan has not played for the national team since June 2022 as he had not received medical clearance following successive head injuries. The 32-year-old Selangor defender has now been cleared by the local medical team to play competitively and will get a chance to add to his 108 caps.

Ikhsan, who has 17 goals in 33 matches for the Lions, has not played for the Republic since a knee injury sustained last December in a 3-1 win over the Maldives and the 24-year-old has yet to feature for Thai side BG Pathum United in 2023.

His older brother and fellow BG Pathum player Irfan, 26, also returns. The central defender last played for the Lions in the 4-1 hammering at the hands of Malaysia during an AFF Championship group-stage fixture in January. Club teammate Ryhan Stewart also returns after missing the 3-1 aggregate win over Guam in October’s first-round qualifiers, due to a hamstring injury.

Nishigaya is pleased to be able to call upon his returning players. He said: “We missed having Ikhsan up front during the Round 1 qualifying games, hence it is a major boost to have him back in the team again, but we will need to be cautious by easing him back into the team.

“Safuwan is a seasoned veteran and having him back in defence along with Irfan, their combined years of international experience will prove to be useful.”

The Lions will begin reporting for centralised training from Friday, before flying to South Korea on Sunday.

Meanwhile, South Korea coach Jurgen Klinsmann has picked his strongest possible squad to face Singapore and China in their opening World Cup qualifiers.

Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min, who has scored eight goals in 11 English Premier League appearances this season, Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich defender Kim Min-jae and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ in-form forward Hwang Hee-chan are all included.

On the two upcoming matches, Nishigaya said: “Our opponents in Round 2 are of a higher level than us and we will need to fight together as a team more than ever before if we are to get a positive result against them. However, we must play without fear regardless of the opponent that stands before us.

“Our first home game against Thailand is crucial in ensuring that we get off to a good start. Home support can be a massive motivating factor and I am looking forward to seeing our fans create a lively atmosphere at the National Stadium in two weeks’ time.”

Tickets for the game are available at www.fas.org.sg/tickets and sistic.com.sg. The early-bird promotion is till Nov 13. Tickets can be purchased on-site on match day, subject to availability.

National team squad

Goalkeepers: Hassan Sunny (Albirex Niigata), Syazwan Buhari (Tampines Rovers), Zharfan Rohaizad (Lion City Sailors)

Defenders: Amirul Adli (Geylang International), Lionel Tan, M. Anumanthan, Christopher van Huizen, Zulqarnaen Suzliman (Sailors), Safuwan Baharudin (Selangor), Ryhan Stewart, Irfan Fandi (BG Pathum United), Jacob Mahler (Madura United)

Midfielders: Adam Swandi, Hami Syahin, Hariss Harun (Sailors), Zulfahmi Arifin (Bhayangkara FC), Song Ui-young (Persebaya Surabaya), Shah Shahiran (Tampines), Shahdan Sulaiman (Hougang United)

Forwards: Ikhsan Fandi (BG) Ilhan Fandi (KMSK Deinze), Shawal Anuar, Hafiz Nor (Sailors), Daniel Goh (Balestier Khalsa)

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