Voices From The Ground: Balestier Khalsa vs Tampines Rovers (League Cup)

Foreground: Balestier Khalsa striker Aung Kyaw Naing (File Photo)

Chris Peng
The Unofficial S.League Podcast

Voices From The Ground: Balestier Khalsa has shown great pedigree in cup competitions while Tampines Rovers is considered a pillar of local football. For this encounter, both S.League clubs had to suffer the ignominy of having nothing to play for and both teams will also have an extended break before the S.League resumes. The similarity ended there as the Toa Payoh based club started with the best eleven they could muster and they proved too strong for the eastern giants, who gave maximum playing time to their younger players in the Cup, to compete against.

Balestier’s intentions were clear from the first minute. Not long after the first whistle, they fired an audacious long shot which wasn't too far wide. Perhaps the line-up fielded by their opponents made them sense blood; Tampines fielded a youthful first eleven with a few veterans sprinkled in while returning star players Hafiz Sujad and Fazrul Nawaz were playing to increase their match fitness. True to the ferocious nature of Balestier’s mascot, the Tigers were able to rip Tampines Rovers from limb to limb, firing three goals past stand-in custodian Joey Sim without reply.

The first half virtually belonged to Balestier. The fact that Jürgen Raab threw on a double substitution as early as the 40th minute told a story all by itself. Zaiful Nizam did make a vital sliding interception as the first half drew to a close but other than that, he was untroubled. While Tampines improved in the second half, the closest they got to breaching Zaiful’s goal was a shot which struck the upright and fell gratefully into the arms of the Tigers' custodian. In contrast, Balestier’s substitute Aung Kyaw Naing gave Joey Sim no chance at all with his scorcher outside the box and that summed up the evening for both sides.

Balestier’s Head Coach Marko Kraljević displayed his pride as he cheerfully shared that all his objectives for this game were achieved. His team played well, scored goals and kept a clean sheet. He was testing out some of the players who may play a part in their next game against Albirex Niigata and noted that everything starts from a good defense. He was pleased that he was able to try out different tactical ideas such as testing players in new positions. Defender Zulkhair Mustaffa was deployed as a striker and was a real handful for the Tampines defense. He was also able to try out a 4-4-2 formation, a clear deviation from his usual 4-1-4-1 style. To him, tonight’s result was a giant killing feat.

Understandably, Tampines’s Head Coach, Raab, was less upbeat. He felt that it was the weakest performance he has seen for quite sometime. He was particularly disappointed with the first half and that helped to explain his double substitution. He was visibly disappointed with the errors and did not offer an excuse. Having given multiple young players a run out, he felt that they didn’t do well enough to push themselves into first team contention. He also revealed that Hafiz was having a shoulder injury and Fazrul was feeling the effect of playing three full games in a week. He attributed Fazrul’s performance to fatigue and the fact that he has just returned from a long injury. With all that said and done, he was looking forward to gather both the first and Prime League teams as he prepares for the encounter with Brunei DPMM. Clearly he was looking to move on from this series of games.

Pre-match interview with Balestier Fan Li Huaimin

1. I do feel that the jump from Eastern Europeans to Burmese imports failed. Any thoughts on this?

Honestly, when we heard rumour of us signing Myanmar national players, I was quite pleased as the move may boost the crowd (as we all know we have the least support among the clubs) and our playing quality. It's never easy to replace players like Emir Lotinac, Miroslav Krištić, Niko Tokić and Robert Peričić. To add to that, I am kind of disappointed that they are former national team players. The last time they donned their country’s colours was two years ago!

2. Not every club can be a Tampines Rovers or Home United, although your team does have a few quality locals like Zaiful Nizam, Shah Hirul and the emerging Hanafi Akbar. How important are they to your club?

Zaiful is the leader, leading such a young team by his experience. Hanafi Akbar is quite impressive. Hazzuwan Halim is stepping up as well.

3. Coach Marko has a great history with the club. He’s Balestier through and through, both as a player as a coach. Any stories to share about him?

Though I didn’t watch Marko play, I heard a lot about him. As a manager, he has already proven that he can perform some magic despite having limited resources.

4. Do you think that it is a blessing in disguise to leave the League Cup? Now your team can focus on the League.

I don’t think it’s a blessing in disguise. Being out of the cup,we can conclude that our season has ended earlier. That being said, we can only focus on the league now.

5. Coach Marko often moaned that he really needs a striker. If you can have a striker from any S.League club, past and present, who will it be and why?

Its a tough one. We used to have have top quality strikers such as Kim Min-Ho, Goran Paulić, Krištić, , Tokić and Robbie (Peričić). I'm just not used to the current situation right now. If I had to choose, probably (former centre back) Paul Cunningham? He doesn't always score and is not a natural striker but he does score important goals.

6. Could we have your score prediction for the game? What does your heart and mind say about the final score line?

My heart always goes for a win for Balestier. The team is eager to bounce back. It's not going be easy but Tampines isn't doing well either, having leaked 9 goals from just 2 games. My prediction would a 1-0 win for the tigers.

7. What do you think Coach Marko can do to push his team on for the rest of the season?

Marko have been blooding young players ever since he was here. First, we had Ho Wai Loon and right now we have Hazzuwan. No doubt he will be trying to give young players a chance to make an impact. Meanwhile we should take one game at a time and try to improve our standing in the league.

Post-match interview with Balestier fan Li Huaimin

1. Coach Marko was delighted with the game. Score wise, how do you feel?

Of course, it’s a 3-0 win, we are happy with it! I can’t really recall when we last scored 3 goals. But more importantly. We got a clean sheet!

2. Hazzuwan had a good game sometime back and everyone were saying that Raihan Rahman, Hanafi Akbar and him culd save Balestier. He scored again last night despite starting on the bench for the last few games. Do you think this is a big morale booster for the team and him?

It is definitely a morale booster, although Hanafi Akbar will be away for the SEA Games soon.

3.Marko did say that he will be looking to start his best team. Aung Kyaw Naing and Kyaw Zayar Win started on the bench again although Aung did come on and score. Is this interesting to you?

I’m not too sure if these Burmese players were unfit for the Tampines game. That being said, Aung scored a decent goal. I think he is the among the better foreigners.

Pre-game interview with Tampines Rovers Fan Mohamed Ridhwan

1. From the highs of Gerard Houllier, Jermaine Pennant, Ronaldinho, and, the signing of 9 Lions XII players in 2016 to the current lows of exiting both the AFC Cup and the League Cup, any thoughts to share?

For this season’s AFC Cup, we tried to go far as possible but luck was not on our side due to our budget constraints. Unlike last season, we were unable to sign quality foreigners and to perform beyond expectations. As for the TNP League Cup, the coach wanted to give some playing time to the reserves and Prime League squad, to give them the experience of playing a physical and attacking brand of football for 90 mins. The first team squad also got to rest properly ahead of the congested S.League and RHB Singapore Cup schedule.

2. V. Sundramoorthy, Akbar Nawas and now Jürgen Raab. How do you feel about their respective coaching styles?

For coach Sundram, his coaching style involves taking a 1-0 lead and then sitting back to defend. Coach Akbar’s coaching style is more about attacking football. Last season, when he took over Coach Sundram during the second half of the season, he manage to guide the club to win a few games on the trot. He even guided the club to 2nd place in the S.League and 1st runner-up for the RHB Singapore Cup.

As for Coach Jurgen, his style of play is more associated with passing football, just like how his country emphasizes on short passes. As such, he really emphasizes on the fitness of his players to enable them to play passing football better.

3. Billy Mehmet, Jordan Webb and Jermaine Pennant departed the club while Son Yong-Chan, Ryutaro Megumi and Ivan Džoni joined the Stags as the foreign imports this season. How good are the Asian imports in relation to the Caucasian ones last season?

For me, Džoni, Megumi and Son can improve their game play on the pitch. They're unable to reach to the next level like what Pennant, Mehmet and Webb did last season. However, it still depends on the whole team to win games, not just the foreigners. It is more about teamwork, hence the local players need to work together with the foreign players.

4. 3 points separate Albirex, Home United and Tampines in the league at the moment. Do you think that it is indeed a three horse race?

Yes, it will definitely be a 3 horse race at the moment as the league has just 11 more games to go. Surely Albirex, Home united and Tampines will want to collect maximum points whenever possible so that they can be at the top when the S.League season ends in November.

5. Do you think that it is a blessing in disguise to exit two tournaments? Now your team can focus on the remaining two.

Surely it is a blessing for the club. It allows us to focus on the remaining two. For the AFC Cup ,Tampines Rovers certainly wanted to do their best to represent Singapore in continental competition but luck wa not on their side as they had to face some of the toughest clubs in the group stage, such as Ha Noi FC, Ceres Negros and FELDA United.

For the TNP League Cup, it was not the coach’s priority to win because he wanted to be fair to the reserves and Prime League squad, to give them more experience and playing time. He also didn't want to risk his first team players. He had no desire to play them in this tournament and see them coming back injured. Hence he preferred to concentrate on the S.League and RHB Singapore Cup, since the winner gets to qualify for the AFC Cup in 2018.

6. Home United has taken over some of the hype with regards to having a large number of national team players.That being said, I can still count approximately 10 players in Tampines who have been capped. Do you think that it is in a way less pressurizing now that Home is sharing the burden of challenging Albirex?

To me it is not about sharing the burden but the national team players need to know that they need to step up their game to the next level if they really want to challenge Albirex and to prevent them from getting a clean sweep of the trophies again.

7. Izwan Mahbud seems to have suffered a loss of form and fitness. It’s a long way down from his heroics against Japan in Saitama. How important is he to your club’s fortunes?

Unfortunately he got another injury this season, as such he is unable to perform just like he did last season. He got to keep a clean sheet for most of the games. He is important to the club but everyone in the team is also important. As I said, football is not about an individual winning games, it's more about teamwork that wins games for the club.

8. Hafiz Sujad and Fazrul Nawaz are back. Does it feel like two brand new signings?

Definitely! Fazrul can perform alongside with Khairul Amri this season upfront and Hafiz Abu Sujad can cover the midfield with Shahdan Sulaiman because we lost Yasir Hanapi to PDRM FA during the mid-season transfer window.

9. Stipe Plazibat and Tsubasa Sano have scored more goals than Dzoni, Khairul Amri, Megumi and Hafiz Sujad combined. Is goal scoring a problem for the Stags at the moment?

We do not really depend on individuals to score goals. Anybody in the team can score a goal, they just need to work together and deliver the results for the club. At the end of the 90 mins of game-play, it is the maximum 3 points that matters.

10. With a large number of veterans, some have raised the notion that Tampines is a 'Dad’s Army'. Do you agree?

I agree. By having a 'Dad's Army' in the team, it will surely pose some risks to the club. Some of the best players we used to have are either retired or had quit football professionally, so we just have to do with whatever we have currently.

11. It hasn’t exactly been a successful League Cup campaign. Do you think that Raab’s plan to rest the first team players backfired?

It did not really backfire because Coach Raab wanted to have a better and clearer picture of the players that he had not been using regularly. By using the reserves and Prime League players in this tournament, he can gauge their standard to see if they can play in the S.League.

12. Could we have your score prediction for the game? What does your heart and mind say about the final score line?

My score prediction would be Tampines Rovers winning the game 2-0. My heart and mind says that they should just play with pride for tonight’s match since we are completely out of the League Cup.

13. What do you think Coach Raab can do to push his team on for the rest of the season?

Raab must stick to playing attacking football in order to win the S.League and RHB Singapore Cup. That can allow us to salvage some pride for local clubs. We need to win the trophies back from Albirex.

Post-match interview with Tampines Fan Mohamed Ridhwan

1. Fazrul and Hafiz stood out as first team stars besides a number of Prime League players. Obviously they are playing to gain match fitness. Are you satisfied with their run-out?

Yes, I am . Fazrul has just returned from a long-term anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. He is regaining tempo and fitness with this game. As for Hafiz , despite not having played for two months due to his Thai club’s departure from the T2 League, he hasn’t lost his touch. They are both clearly a work-in-progress for the club.

2. Ismadi Mukhtar stood out for me, a rampaging right back who did not neglect his defensive duties. Do you see him donning Singapore's colours?

Yes, I am hoping that Sundram will give him a national team call-up soon.

3. Do you think the defeat was due to the number of youngsters, tactics or a superior opponent?

I think that the coach is trying out tactics for the game on 28 July (against Brunei DPMM). Clearly it didn’t work out today.

4. Joey Sim had a few poor touches in the first half. One of his careless kick almost led to the opener. Do you think he is a good replacement for Izwan?

He’s a good replacement. When he is called upon in the league, he didn’t let us down.

5. The coach's double sub on the 40th minute tells a story. Thoughts?

I think that it was done to give Fazrul Nawaz better support up front. Before that, he was virtually operating as the lone striker.

6. Tampines almost scored in the 2nd half but the shot hit the bar. If it went in, could things have changed?

Even if we scored that, we would had still lost as our defense collapsed and Joey Sim had to defend his goal all by himself.

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