League Cup: Bacina wary of setting targets
Photography by Aundry Gan
Hougang United will kick off their StarHub League Cup 2012 campaign with a visit to Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday evening to take on an unpredictable Courts Young Lions outfit.
2011 was a milestone year for the northeastern club, not only finishing a record seventh in the league, but also achieving a semifinals finish for the RHB Singapore Cup and finding themselves just a penalty kick away from getting their hands on the League Cup title.
Under then-coach Aide Iskandar, the Cheetahs earned a ‘giant-killers’ tag for their fantastic run to the final – overcoming SAFFC in extra time in the quarters, shutting out Home United in the semis before holding Albirex Niigata (Singapore) for 120 minutes.
Many of the players from that squad have stayed, but there is a new coach in charge now – and Nenad Bacina is keen to repeat what the former national skipper had done, although he stopped short of giving his team a targeted finish.
“The League Cup is the same as any other competition we take part in; at Hougang I think we have an obligation to do well for our fans because we reached the final last year,” he told sleague.com.
“However, it’s different this year. I’m the new coach and we have a new team, and we have to play five games in ten days, which is a very tight schedule.
“Moreover, if we go through, we’re likely to face SAFFC or DPMM FC, so it’s very hard to predict (how we will finish).
“Our target is to go so far as possible while playing good football; I believe if we perform well, the result will come. And at least it’s good that we have the plate competition this year, so in case we don’t go through, we still have a chance to win something else.”
The Cheetahs’ first task in this competition is to overturn a Young Lions outfit whose form this season can be described as Jekyll-and-Hyde.
After the majority of the squad returned from the AFC Under-22 Asian Cup qualifiers in Indonesia, the league form has been excellent – stunning the likes of Malaysian side Harimau Muda and SAFFC to get two successive wins under their belts.
However, their bid to enter the League Cup knockout stages is under massive threat after a narrow defeat to Home on Thursday.
With Hougang having the chance to put the final nail in their coffin, Bacina was particularly excited about this clash.
His Cheetahs went home victorious by a three-goal margin in the earlier part of the season in a league encounter at the Jalan Besar facility, although Robin Chitrakar’s men had their revenge with a 2-0 victory at Hougang in the reverse fixture in May.
“I’m expecting a good match tomorrow, though it’s a pity it’s on a Sunday and may not see such a good crowd,” said Bacina, clearly concerned that the late kickoff could put off people who have to work or go to school the following morning.
“But all those who are coming will watch two sides that have good qualities.
“I went to watch the Young Lions play Home United on Thursday. Although they lost 0-1, I felt they did well.
“I won’t say who are the favorites in this game, maybe the Young Lions play three games in seven days, but it won’t be a significant advantage to us. They’re a young team and have a lot of players to rotate around.
“Also they have good foreigners like Jonathan Toto, who is very dangerous, and Sherif El-Masri (who scored the two goals at Hougang) whom we have to be careful of.”
However, judging on recent form, the former SAFFC defender will have every reason to be confident of replicating that impressive league win back in February.
Hougang are arguably in the best form of their season so far – a six-match losing streak was not the best way to end the first round, but they managed to pick themselves up with a one-goal victory over Tanjong Pagar United in the first fixture of the second round.
The manner of their heartbreaking late loss to Gombak United in the RHB Singapore Cup quarterfinals could have dented any lesser teams, but the Cheetahs managed to dust themselves down quite nicely in the games that followed.
A last-gasp win against Geylang United, an impressive 3-0 mauling of Balestier Khalsa and a late equaliser that held Home to a 1-1 draw in their next three fixtures showed how well they have recovered, and impressively, all those results came away from their Hougang den.
“The mood’s quite positive after collecting three wins and one draw in the last four league games,” declared Bacina.
“Hopefully we can bring that good mood from the league. I find no reason why we can’t do that!”
He will however miss the valuable services of two key players. Centreback Stanislav Vidakovic is still struggling with an injury sustained at Bishan, and mercurial forward Jordan Webb is carrying a suspension brought over from last season’s competition.
Despite that, Bacina expressed confidence that he has ‘good replacements’ to bank on, with Mamadou Diallo carrying particularly high hopes to produce the goods in Webb’s absence.
The Guinean frontman has toiled hard up front all season with only five goals to his tally so far, but scoring in the last game by bamboozling his way past the Home defence will be a perfect boost for the 22-year-old ahead of this clash.
Chitrakar will certainly do well to guard against Diallo, since he will not have that many attacking options to call upon for his own side.
Lively midfielder Faris Ramli remains out of action with an ankle injury, while Benjamin Lee picked up a groin strain in the Young Lions’ loss at Bishan and will probably not feature as well.
That leaves Nazrul Ahmad Nazari and Shahfiq Ghani as likely replacements for the duo alongside either of Sherif El-Masri and Fazli Ayob.
Leftback Al-Qaasimy Abdul Rahman is meanwhile still struggling to recover from an illness he had first contracted in Indonesia, though Hafiz Abu Sujad has been doing an admirable job covering for him.
“Hougang are a tough, quality side,” said Chitrakar.
“Although we beat them at Hougang, it’s a different ball game this time around. They definitely want to get one over us, and the moment they beat us, they will qualify for the quarterfinals.
“This game’s very important for us as another loss means we will lose the chance to go further. I think Hougang are the favourites since it’s our fourth game in a week, but our boys are shaping up well and will not be easy to beat.”