Voices From The Ground: Albirex vs Home United – Predatory Protectors Bag Precious Points

Photo: Chris Peng

Chris Peng
The Unofficial S.League Podcast

Voices From The Ground:  Football is sometimes described as a cat and mouse game. Generally, one of the two teams is superior and expected to take on the role of the initiative taker.

This S.League match between two title contenders was a little different. On current form, there's little to differentiate between the two sides. Albirex Niigata (S) had won all 7 matches following their last encounter against Home United, which saw the White Swans gain a point from that match which took place almost three months ago. They then went on to clinch a victory over the vaunted Myanmar National team not long after that.

Home United are no slouches themselves either. Within this three months, only Warriors FC and Tampines Rovers have managed to take points off the Protectors. They also celebrated wins over two legs against Global Cebu in the AFC Cup Zonal Semi-Finals.

With these in place, it shaped up to be a game of high stakes. The Protectors resembled a lion more than a dragon. They were able to take full advantage of the few chances that went their way, much like a prowling cat with a predatory instinct. Instead of hissing and scratching, they tackled, passed and shot their way to three points. It was a much-needed win not only for the Protectors, but also for Tampines Rovers and the rest of the league. If Albirex Niigata (S) had won the game, it would be almost impossible for the rest of the teams to stake a foothold on the title.

I managed to grab hold of Home United Fan Club Leader Eddy for some pre, mid and post-match opinions. On the other hand, I was looking for Albirex's die-hard fan Satria for a White Swans' perspective but sadly he was nowhere to be found.

Pre-Match with Eddy

Chris (C): Here we are, talking to Eddy, the guy who started the Hougang banner saga. He's currently helming the Home United Fan Club. So, Eddy, to introduce yourself, how did you come to take on this role?

Eddy (E): It's all coincidental if you are not religious, if you are religious, you will take that it is fate. One day I was making a lot of noise in the stands, positive noise as opposed to the usual bunch of vulgarities. The club approached me and I decided that I needed to do this to contribute to local football. Instead of complaining about the bad atmosphere, perhaps I can do something about it.

C: So, how's the recruitment process?

E: I didn't expect it to be so time-consuming. It's taking up most of my free time to update the Facebook page and work on video content. Recently I have also compiled a four-page booklet of chants and songs. I have also done research on what it takes to run a proper fan club. It's early days and I can't tell how big we will be, we'll take small steps.

C: Sounds like an endeavor of love. Let's move on, how do you feel about the scrapping of the ASEAN Super League?

E: I must admit that when the idea was first mentioned, it sounded like a good idea. That was during the LionsXII days. I guess Lim Kia Tong is right,  what with the league is not doing well and the fact that our talent pool is not big. We don't want to disgrace ourselves in the international stage. People will send the best players there, and then what would happen to the S.League? It's already devoid of star power. It's a good move but now I think we should be emulating the likes of the Thai-League. 20 years ago, we were not far off but now there's a huge gulf. We should look at what went wrong and see how we can improve from here.

C: During the heyday of the S.League, the best Thai talents were in Singapore. Sutee (Suksomkit), (Therdsak Chaiman) Chaiman, Tawan (Sripan) and Niweat (Siriwong) were all household names. Now there is a reverse in polarity as the best Singaporeans are looking to play in the Thai-League.

E: Yes, the likes of Hassan Sunny and Hafiz Sujad are happy to play in the Thai-League, there is a reverse.

C: Yes, so in a way if the ASEAN Super League did go through, we will have another LionsXII situation. The best will be siphoned away while the rest will stay in the S.League, creating a less than ideal situation, much like how the S-League co-existed alongside the LionsXII. So, it's a good thing that the ASEAN Super League is scrapped.

During the (recent) press conference (with the AFC General Secretary), it was also said that the AFC will be looking to do a study with regional or even FIFA experts with regards to how to revive the S.League. Do you think that it is a tall order or a good initiative?

E: The AFC will finance these consultants so it's harmless even if the ideas are bad so long as our administration is strong enough to withstand them. Ideally, they will come up with good ideas, of course.

C: I find it interesting for you to say that it's okay as long as our administration is strong enough to withstand bad ideas. As it is, we are trying to revive an ill body, I dread to imagine the league being plagued by more bad ideas! Hopefully, we will be able to integrate the better ideas.

I was looking at the current form of the clubs. Home United lost against Tampines Rovers but beat the rest. The edging out of Global FC was phenomenal as well. Stipe Plazibat did not disappoint. Home United is still involved in all four tournaments. It will be tough juggling the manpower requirements. Do you think it's more of a positive point or a pressure on the club?

E: It's positive, fans will be more forgiving if clubs field reserves as they are in so many tournaments. The League Cup is here at a good time, the coach can rest his star players. There will be real pressure had we been booted out of the AFC Cup or are not competing for the league. Good pressure.

C: Home United is the only club in Singapore with their own youth facility at Mattar Road. The likes of Amiruddin Asraf came from the Prime League and they are staking a claim for themselves in the first team. The club should do just fine.

On the note of pressure, I was looking at Home United's foreigners, Song Ui-Young and Stipe are having great seasons. Sirina Camara is having an on-and-off season. Is that a fair statement?

E: Camara is in-and-out due to injuries, so I don't think that it's sketchy. When he is fit he will be back to do his part, for example with his lung-bursting runs down the left. It's fair to say that Stipe and Song had been carrying the team at times.

C: When Camara first emerged with the Young Lions and the now defunct Etoile FC, he really made his name with those runs. Last season, I felt that Camara had his best games when he played in the middle, a role where he had to run less. I am not sure if it's a formational requirement. Home United was forced to switch between different defensive personnel earlier in the season due to injuries.

E: I think that it's still positive, the defense has been okay whether the likes of Afiq Yunos and Abdil Qaiyyim had been drafted in or not. For the last season, it looked a bit weak. We are not letting in so many soft goals as compared to back then.

C: Home United barely scraped through to fourth spot (in 2016), qualifying for the AFC. If they had scored two less or conceded two more, they wouldn't have been able to play on the regional stage.

Time to end with a contentious question. To me, Home United is the pseudo-national team. On last count, they had 11 or so capped players and 5 of them played prominent roles in the recent international matches.

Home United has a great spine with Hassan Sunny donning the gloves, Irfan Fandi holding fort at the back, Hariss Harun and Izzdin Shafiq helming the midfield and Faris Ramli and Khairul Nizam making things happen upfront. Do you think Home United can draw upon this nationalistic pride to get a result against their Japanese opponents? The Singapore National team did pull off a draw against Japan in Saitama and this was widely seen as a coup.

E: You can say that, but you need to praise Albirex for their integration into the community. If you were to attend matches in Jurong East, you would see that the likes of the youths from Yuhua are also part of the fan base. Lots of people think that Albirex shouldn't belong to the S.League. But I beg to differ. If tonight's game turns out to be a Singapore versus Japan situation, I would be happy for Singaporeans in general to support Home United. There are definitely more Singaporeans than Japanese around. Everyone wants the S.League to be more exciting. If Albirex wins, they will be deserving winners but it will make it very difficult for any club to catch them.

C: So, are you expecting a cagey affair or one that involves the clubs going out with all guns blazing?

E: The latter, I predicted a 2-2 draw. That's what my brain says. Obviously, my heart is yearning for a Home United win a 3-0 margin!

C: I applaud your optimism. Albirex defeated the Myanmar National team 1-0. The Burmese drew 1-1 with the Singapore National team. Put that into context.

E: Singapore doesn't boost of the likes of Stipe and Song though.

C: Indeed, I guess if you can clone Singaporean national players such as Faris, Irfan and Hassan and have a Home United vs Singapore game, it's not clear who will win.

E: You can quote me on this, even though many Home United players also wear national colors with distinction, the style of play is very different. I cannot recognize the Home United players when they are playing for Singapore. Maybe, the national team can learn a thing or two from Home United!

C: Teams do take on the characteristic of their coaches.

E: Sundram is a defensively sound coach, but perhaps it's time for him to try something different.

C: May the best team win. Home United blew it three months ago, let's see how things develop today. Thanks for your time.

E: Thanks bro!

Half-Time with Eddy

C: Song didn't appear to be sorely missed. Right? (Note: Song was nursing an injury and did not feature in this encounter)

E: I'm surprised that the dynamism in midfield was in place. I was leading the cheers and lost sight of the match from time to time though. Hariss stepped up tonight. In the previous games, I felt that he drifted in and out at times, but tonight he seems to have raised his game. Perhaps it’s due to the quality of the opposition. Adam Swandi has been very busy tonight as well.

C: So, you feel that Hariss and Adam has filled in for Song as a duo?

E: Everyone has chipped in! That’s a great thing. Khairul Nizam is missing but Amiruddin is filling in for him well. Stipe is plowing a lone furrow upfront but he’s been doing a great job. It’s looking good so far.

C: Faris is playing as a second striker behind Stipe. Earlier we spoke about Camara’s season but he’s been having a great game tonight! He was running non-stop and his last-ditch tackle saved Home United from conceding a certain goal.

E: A defensive rock! We created a song after him and perhaps he was inspired! Yes, that was a great tackle. We hope that he can play just as well in the second half.

C: You’ll need him. Rudy Khairullah is not as inspiring as Hassan.

E: As a new keeper, of course he will not be as commanding, we have every confidence in him and hope that we won’t miss Hassan too much! Here’s hoping that Hassan will make a speedy recovery.

C: Hassan not being around is a psychological void. Albirex will be trying to go for it. How do you think you can protect Rudy?

E: (Shares what he feels Albirex shouldn’t do instead) Albirex don’t have big guys. Normally teams bully keepers via big guys. If Albirex try to go the aerial route, they wouldn’t do well. Irfan, Abdil and Camara are pretty big while Juma'at Jantan is very experienced. Hariss is there as well. So, I hope that Albirex will send (the long balls) in!

C: Sounds like you are not worried. Other than maintaining the composure, is there anything you can do from the bench to ignite a spark for Home United?

E: Marijan Suto or Chris Van Huizen can come on and give Albirex a few thoughts. They will have fresh legs and perhaps Albirex won’t be able to push as far as they’ll like. Albirex can be very dangerous with their passes and overlaps. Hopefully we can contain them.

C: Perhaps Haziq Azman can come on to shore up the defensive midfield?

E: If they are trying to bully Rudy via the aerial route, Afiq might even come on if he’s not injured. A 5-man defense for the last 10-15 minutes. May not be worth it to be too offensive late on so we can just leave Faris on the counterattack.

C: Especially with Hassan being injured.

E: (Adds with enthusiasm): Yes, we need to keep it tight but not retreat too far. They will find a way to out pass us.

C: Home United should try to grab a second goa,l perhaps.

E: (stoically): We won’t let them come back with a 2-2 result again!

C: To not relive the horrors 3 months ago. Thank you, Eddy!

E: Thanks!

Full-Time with Eddy

C: Congratulations, Eddy, not quite as last minute as the victory over Global F.C., but an equally vital result. Which moment was the most pivotal to you? Either of the goals, the red card or any of the near misses from either side?

E: To me, these three moments proved vital.

1. When we scored the first goal, it gave us the belief that we could beat them, gave us something to hold on to and it meant that we could play on the break and not be open at the back.

2. When they missed that open goal towards the end of the match (82nd minute). I still cannot believe that they missed it, it would have been 1-1.

3. Lastly, when we scored the 2nd goal. We were clinging on towards the end. The 2nd goal ended any doubts and settled the nerves.

C: The end result was close to your dream score of 3-0, how do you think Coach Aidil can push on with this result?

E: Aidil will use this result to tell the boys that they are capable of anything. They have now beaten Albirex and Global FC, both strong opposition.

C: Rudy has proven to be a good deputy. 3rd choice keeper Eko may fancy his chances of a breakthrough. How important is it to have three good keepers at your disposal?

E: It is of vital importance to have 3 good keepers at our disposal. I haven’t seen much of Rudy so I cannot comment but from what I seen last night and in the previous matches, he doesn’t seem to freeze on the big stage, so that’s good.

C: To sum up, do you think that Home United played well, Albirex played poorly or was it a combination of factors?

E: Albirex lacked the cutting edge, that coupled with Home United’s swarming midfield meant that Albirex had far fewer chances than I thought they would have had.

C: Thanks!

E: You are welcome!

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