Singapore coach Takayuki Nishigaya faces juggling act ahead of Vietnam, India tests

Singapore's preparations for this year's AFF Championship will see them take on Vietnam and India in friendlies on Sep. 21 and 24 respectively. Football Association of Singapore

As he approaches the half-year mark of his reign as Singapore coach, Takayuki Nishigaya is already facing a tricky juggling act between focusing on the present and building for the future.

On Tuesday afternoon, Nishigaya named his 23-man squad for upcoming friendlies against Vietnam and India on Sep. 21 and 24 respectively -- with the games set to take place at Thong Nhat Stadium in Ho Chi Minh City.

There were no major surprises as the Lions look to build to the year-end AFF Championship, barring first-time call-ups for Hougang United goalkeeper Mukundan Maran and Geylang international defender Joshua Pereira.

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In the likes of captain Hariss Harun, goalkeeper Hassan Sunny and playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman -- who combine for 291 caps -- Nishigaya will have plenty of experience to call upon against Vietnam and India, who are both ranked above Singapore in the FIFA world rankings.

Nonetheless, a closer look at the latest Singapore squad hints at the complicated nature of the job at hand for the Japanese tactician.

Five players aged 23 or younger have been named in Shah Shahiran, Ryhan Stewart, Glenn Kweh, Ilhan Fandi and Ryaan Sanizal.

A total of 14 -- including the uncapped Mukundan and Pereira -- have made less than 20 international appearances.

On their own, these statistics suggest a team in transition and that is what a coach in a situation like Nishigaya, who has recently been brought in to take the team forward, would be expected to do -- build towards the future.

But it is hardly ever so straightforward.

Singapore's failure to qualify for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup back in June was never going to be viewed as a major disappointment given the tricky opposition they were up against -- mainly Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan -- but also because the three ties, including a win over Myanmar, were Nishigaya's first competitive games at the helm.

Yet, give the Lions will not be featuring at next year's Asian Cup, and the fact that qualification for the 2026 FIFA World Cup is still a distance away, means that there is but one meaningful competition where Nishigaya will be judged on in the near future.

The AFF Championship, Southeast Asian football's premier international tournament.

Of course, regional dominance should be just the first step to bigger and better things and teams like Thailand and Vietnam have done that in past years, being one of just 12 teams in Asia to reach the final round of World Cup qualifiers for the 2018 and 2022 edition respectively.

Those two, along with Philippines, also competed at the 2019 Asian Cup, and will feature in the continental event once again next year along with Malaysia and Indonesia.

But in a tournament brimming with rich history in a region full of fierce rivalries, there is still plenty of importance given to the AFF Championship.

After three consecutive group-stage eliminations, the Lions did well to reach the semifinals last time out under Tatsuma Yoshida.

The expectation will be for them to repeat that under his successor Nishigaya.

Which is perhaps why, even though the current Singapore squad may look like one that is building for the future, it is anything but given its average age of 27.4 years.

Many of these players may be relatively new on the international stage but they are seasoned campaigners at club level, ready to prove their worth to the national team while not being complete precocious fledglings.

And perhaps that is the best way to look to rejuvenate the Lions while still ensuring they have every chance of minimally reaching the semis once again at this year's AFF Championship.

Of course, when that time comes, Singapore can easily inject more experience through the likes of Safuwan Baharudin, Gabriel Quak and Shakir Hamzah but, given all will be above the age of 30 by then, it will be a clear move for the present rather than the future.

Either way, it is certainly a tricky juggling act for Nishigaya -- even before he passes the six-month mark at the helm.