League Cup: Rams seek end to victory drought
Photography by Aundry Gan
On the second day of StarHub League Cup action, the first in Group D, inaugural tournament winners Woodlands Wellington tackle the team they faced a matter of days ago in the Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League, Tampines Rovers.
And while on that occasion the Stags had few problems despatching the Rams at Woodlands Stadium, thus extending the latter’s already-long winless run, that might just act as a spur for the team playing the role of visitors this time around at Clementi.
As has been seen before on many occasions, cup football can be a totally different kettle of fish than the weekly slog of the league programme, where a long run without a win can discourage players, whose self-belief begins to take a big hit.
The League Cup is the perfect opportunity for the Rams and their crazy fans to give Tampines a sharp lesson, especially since Stags coach Steven Tan has made it clear he will be giving some of his more sheltered players their night in the limelight.
One man set to sit out is French defender Benoit Croissant, who according to his coach has been on the receiving end of some hard knocks of late and can certainly use the rest.
Another likely to get some time off the field is Serbian striker Sead Hadzibulic, who has endured a few hard games after bursting onto the Singapore football scene to great effect.
Not that Tampines are lacking in depth or players to replace both these omissions, but it bears reminding that the group stage involves only two matches for each club and one win may alone be enough to advance.
In that light, Woodlands can raise their game and try and catch the Stags napping with a big – and dare it be said, overdue – improvement on recent performances.
That will not be easy, though, as Rams team manager Matthew Tay explained when sleague.com caught up with him after considerable difficulty.
“We have two suspensions for this first match, accrued from last season,” he said.
“Goalkeeper Ahmadulhaq Che Omar and Goh Swee Swee are both out for this match, but will be available for our second match against Gombak United on Monday.
“There are long-term injuries to K. Sathiaraj and Shamsurin Abdul Rahman – the latter was involved in a motorcycle accident and won’t be able to train again until 2 August. There’s also our Trinidadian defender Fabien Lewis, who has a hernia problem, so he won’t be there either.
“We do hope for a change of fortunes, however, and we will be calling on some Prime League players to take on Tampines and Gombak. Ang (Bang Heng) will also take over in goal tomorrow and he has the necessary experience.”
Nobody at Woodlands is under any illusions about the task ahead of them at Clementi Stadium, especially since Tampines had very much served notice of their strength with an easy 3-0 win over them only two weeks earlier.
But drawing on their past League Cup pedigree – they had also reached the final in 2010 – and the experience of captain Daniel Hammond and the many others who have clocked plenty of hard yards in the local game between them, it would be folly to write the Rams off.
In Australian-Lebanese midfielder Hussein Akil and Korean Moon Soon Ho, as well as locals like Guntur Djafril, Han Yiguang, Farizal Basri and Duncan David Elias, Salim Moin has people who know a good bit about playing at this level themselves.
And it would be hasty for anyone to overlook the return of Navin Vanu after his stint with the Courts Young Lions, as his abilities could prove a game-changer at any time.
Tay, however, was clear on the mountain the Rams have to climb, at least in this first game.
“Tampines are a quality team, even with fringe players being included, as Steven knows how to use those players to advantage against us,” he noted.
And not just any ordinary fringe players, as the Stags look set to give returning prodigal Noh Alam Shah his first home game against the Rams.
“We will start Alam Shah tomorrow,” said their coach Tan, fully aware of the much-loved marksman’s good affinity with supporters.
“It’s his first home game, so we hope people will come down to Clementi to see him play. Aleks (Duric) will play too, so we won’t be weakened, even without Sead in the side, and we should be able to play our usual style and start the League Cup campaign off with the three points.”
Alam Shah made a cameo appearance off the bench in the league game at Woodlands two weeks back, so Rams fans, who dub themselves the ‘Black Sheep’, could be keen to offer him their universal greeting again.
They can certainly hope that their opponents enter this match in a cocky frame of mind and allow them to spring a surprise, though that is perhaps a bit too hard to guarantee.
Having enjoyed a good history in the League Cup, though, Woodlands may not yet have resigned themselves to featuring in the new Plate competition for teams that finish third in each group.
They will be out to become the first team to win the League Cup twice, thereby lifting a trophy the Stags have not even touched once.
Form may back Tampines this time, perhaps, but there is still enough talent at Salim and his assistant Clement Teo’s disposal to give their rowdy fans cause for optimism this Friday.