Singapore 4 Laos 3
Shah Alam - Three second half goals saw Singapore stage a remarkable comeback to win 4-3 in their final Group B match against Laos at the Shah Alam Stadium on Saturday.
The result saw Singapore finish top of the group, ahead of Malaysia on goal difference, and they will now face the Philippines in the semi-finals.
Laos had stunned the three-time winners with two first-half goals but a goal by Shahril Ishak in stoppage time before the interval set the stage for the Singapore comeback.
With a steady drizzle ensuring wet and slippery conditions, both sides were tentative in the opening minutes but the first major incident of the match was not long in coming.
In the third minute, Singapore's Fazrul Nawaz chased a loose ball and slid in to challenge Laos goalkeeper Sengphachan Bounthisanh. The crunching tackle saw Sengphachan writhing in pain and after several minutes, he was stretchered off and replaced by Soukthavy Soundala.
Instead of being rattled by the early drama, Laos, inspired by Soukaphone Vongchiengkham on the right wing, opened the scoring after a series of quick counter-attacks.
Running into the Singapore box in the 21st minute, Soukaphone latched onto a through ball before squaring it to Khampheng Sayavutthi to steer past a helpless Izwan Mahbud.
Stunned by the goal, Singapore piled on the pressure and came close to grabbing the equaliser ten minutes before the break. Qiu Li won a header inside the box but a charging Aleksandar Duric headed wide despite having the goal at his mercy.
With Singapore pushing more men forward to find the elusive equaliser, Laos capitalised and doubled their lead with six minutes remaining in the half. Sopha Saysana threaded a pass through the Singapore defence to Keoviengpheth Lithideth who sidestepped a defender before firing past Izwan.
Avramovic wasted little time and did not wait for the half-time whistle to reshuffle his side.
With a minute of regulation time remaining before the break, he pulled out the ineffective Qiu Li and Daniel Bennett and brought on Khairul Amri and Shaiful Esah.
The move paid dividends almost immediately as Singapore pulled a goal back deep into stoppage time.
Shaiful swung in a short corner to Mustafic Fahrudin whose chip found Shahril Ishak who made no mistake and slid the ball home.
Singapore continued their revival after the break and Shahril was again on target, firing a low drive into the bottom left corner in the 53rd minute. A minute later Fazrul forced a save from Soukthavy.
As the ragged Laos struggled to contain Singapore, they kept conceding free kicks just outside the box and were made to pay in the 63rd minute when Khairul Amri scored from 30 metres out.
Two minutes later Singapore went 4-2 up after Shaiful's cross from the left found Fazrul who made no mistake with a diving header.
Laos narrowed the gap when they were awarded a penalty in the 81st minute after Shaiful's challenge saw a Laos forward going to ground. Khampheng coolly slotted home for his second goal of the night.
Avramovic was a relieved man after the match as he admitted that Singapore had made it out of the group stage the hard way.
"Laos played exactly how we expected them to, pushing numbers up to surprise us," he said.
The Serbian said he was forced to make the first half substitutions to get back into the game.
"To find goals we needed more balls to the far post so our forwards could get the second ball," he said, adding that replacing Bennett with Shaiful solved two problems, strengthening the back line and getting more crosses in.
"We needed those crosses from Shaiful so we made the change because it had to be made," he said.
Kimura was pleased with his team despite the loss, claiming everything about the match was good except for the result.
"We lost the game but the players never gave up,” said the Japanese.
He said the crosses to the far post by Singapore proved to be Laos' undoing as the height advantage their opponents had over his players was decisive.
Kimura felt Fazrul's tackle on Sengphachan deserved a red card as it was dangerous play.
"It was a dangerous tackle and my player is now in hospital."