League Cup: Young Lions plot to hit Home
Photography by Jaslin Tay
The StarHub League Cup is back for its sixth edition, with an all-new group stage format, and the first day of action sees the Courts Young Lions visit Bishan Stadium to face Home United.
After defeating Malaysia’s Harimau Muda and SAFFC in back-to-back S.League matches, the Young Lions’ confidence is sky-high heading into the StarHub League Cup 2012.
The team, meant to be a developmental Under-23 squad, can now be said to be enjoying their best run of form in recent memory, as they are on a three-game winning streak, having collected 12 points from the last 15 available.
The scalps of their Causeway rivals and the resurgent Warriors are ones they are most proud of, as both teams were serious title contenders at the start of the season.
On Thursday, the young men of Jalan Besar will be hoping to add another title favourite to that list of fallen giants by defeating Home at their Bishan base.
Together with Hougang United, Home and the Young Lions make up Group B, the second of four different groups, and they will be contesting for two places in the quarterfinals.
The team finishing last in the group will play in a parallel plate series with the other third-place finishers of the other three groups.
This new format, which replaces the standard knockout approach used in past years, will see teams play at least three matches in the competition.
Each match in the group stage is crucial, and while a slip-up does not automatically mean elimination, it will leave any team with a big hole to crawl out of.
Young Lions head coach Robin Chitrakar acknowledged this fact, and he is preparing his charges for a tough fight in the coming match.
“Both teams definitely want to win this match,” said the former Singapore international.
“Each game is crucial, and one defeat will almost determine if you are out. There is still a chance in the second match, but it is very small.
“This is our first League Cup game, and we’re facing a quality side. We want to keep the momentum going from out league matches, but Home United are a really strong side and as always, they are favourites in this tournament.
“The boys will have to be prepared for this one.”
As results have shown of late, Chitrakar and his staff have found a winning formula, and they will be keen to successfully repeat it against the Protectors.
However, the danger for a relatively raw team like the Young Lions is that they might get overconfident and a tad bit complacent after the recent good run, which might backfire on them.
It will be a challenge for Chitrakar to keep his charges’ feet on the ground and their minds focused on the task at hand.
This might be even tougher considering the well-documented situation that last season’s S.League runners-up are in, namely the internal technical tussle involving head coach Lee Lim Saeng and midfield anchor John Wilkinson.
Wilkinson has already been dropped for being critical about Lee’s tactics, which means Home will be playing with a somewhat weakened squad for the foreseeable future.
On the pitch, the Protectors have not been performing up to their lofty expectations as well.
Since the start of the second half of the season, they have fallen quite a bit behind in the title race, and are now five points adrift of league leaders Albirex Niigata (Singapore).
A heavy 0-3 defeat to SAFFC at the start of the month put a dent in their title run, and although they were able to overcome a first-half 1-2 deficit to demolish Geylang United 7-3, they fell further behind in the race when they dropped points in a 1-1 draw with Hougang.
They have also failed to defend their RHB Singapore Cup title, as they were eliminated in the quarterfinals by SAFFC over two legs.
That means the StarHub League Cup will be their only shot at redemption, yet with the players and management in their current mental state, even a good run in that competition is not a given.
Indeed, if the Young Lions are able to turn in a solid and disciplined performance on the Bishan pitch this Thursday, they might just spring another surprise and slay another giant.
They have the tools; Jonathan Toto and former Home starlet Sherif El-Masri, who were suspended for the match against SAFFC, will return to action in this match.
Al-Qaasimy Abdul Rahman and Faris Ramli also missed that one, but while Al-Qaasimy still has a chance of making the squad after shaking off the flu bug, Faris is almost certainly unable to play due to an ankle injury.
That said, the Young Lions need to be careful, as Home’s match against Geylang showed how threatening they can be when they turn it on.
Indeed, the Protectors are blessed in the attacking department this season, with Frederic Mendy, Shotaro Ihata and Qiu Li always ready to take a half-chance if given.
The Protectors have already beaten the Young Lions this season once in the league, and by a comfortable 3-1 margin too, as a goal from Firdaus Idros and a second-half double from Mendy cancelled out Toto’s early goal.
That was when Home were in a different vein of form, however, and on that occasion Mendy was available.
This time, the lanky Frenchman has to complete a suspension carrying over from the 2011 edition, and that may just hand the Young Lions victory and kick their League Cup campaign off on a fantastic winning note.