League Cup: Tigers bent on beating Geylang
Photography by Aundry Gan
It is very much do-or-die for home club Balestier Khalsa in their second and final match in the group stage of the StarHub League Cup, being played out under revised rules this season – rules that give clubs the chance to play a minimum of three matches in this mid-season competition.
Under the new format Balestier, as the losing team in their opening game in Group B, cannot afford to lose to their opponents at Toa Payoh Stadium on Monday evening, and there is every possibility that even a draw will not help them either.
Having fallen in their opening match with Albirex Niigata (Singapore) on Friday, they know that the White Swans, with that 2-0 win in hand, may not even need a point when they travel to Bedok this Thursday, unless the Tigers triumph over Geylang by more than two clear goals, or win by at least 3-1.
The Eagles, by contrast, are playing their opening match on Monday, and with the possibility that Albirex will pay them a visit with a passage into the quarterfinals already guaranteed and thus may not offer as stiff resistance as they might have feared.
So, Monday night pits a team needing to win against a team that would merely like to win.
Visitors Geylang are fresh and have nothing to lose, according to their caretaker coach Kanan Vedhamuthu.
Balestier, meanwhile, will need to make the most of their home advantage here to push for qualification for a quarterfinals berth.
Darren Stewart, coach of the Tigers, is certainly bent on his team winning their way through to the next stage.
And even though the third-placed teams in each group will meet in a separate ‘Plate’ series carrying reduced prize money and prestige, he will not see that as consolation enough.
“We had a hard game against Albirex, but there was nothing wrong with our performance,” he told sleague.com on Sunday evening.
“We will be putting out our strongest team, and we want to win this home game for sure.
“All the same, we can’t afford to take Geylang lightly, even if their form has not been too crash-hot. Ours hasn’t been either, at least in terms of getting the points.
“We did spare some players during the Albirex game, knowing we had another game three days later. Tengku (Mushadad) for instance only played the last 15 minutes on Friday, and we also gave Poh Yi Feng just half an hour in that game.”
In the choice of goalkeepers, however, it was more a matter of form than player rotation, the Australian explained.
“We have two very good keepers and we don’t simply rotate them, we play the one who is showing the most form at the time,” he noted.
“Joey (Sim) is doing well, but just now Zak (Nerani) is in the better form, so he has been the one starting for us.
“A few of the players took minor knocks against Albirex, but none that will put them out of contention on Monday.”
Another highly-rated team member who was used sparingly in the Friday game, winger Hamqaamal Shah, could be given more game time against Geylang, rather than the 32 minutes he had at Jurong East.
With Balestier showing no lack of determination or discipline, merely a lack of luck, the league’s bottom club may find things tough, especially at the Tigers’ frequent fortress at Toa Payoh.
The Geylang boys have enjoyed the odd upset at the ground in recent times, but this year’s Tigers are an entirely different unit.
All the same, Kanan talked up his side’s chances on the eve of the game, a game his charges have been training hard for ever since their last Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League game.
“We had a Prime League game last night,” mentioned the former national athlete.
“It was called off, due to a storm, but we had already decided to use five of the Prime League players in this match, even if it had gone ahead.
“That it was cancelled means we have five fresh sets of legs, and the rest of the S.League players were training well at Bedok Stadium while it was raining hard at Clementi (where Geylang were due to meet Tampines Rovers on Saturday).”
Kanan, who doubles as S.League as well as Prime League coach, rushed across to the western side of the island to relieve his assistant Mohd Noor Ali, who has been taking care of the team in his absence, even as the former discovered that the storm had left his players without a match.
“Balestier will be under pressure, after they lost to Albirex,” he observed.
“There’s no reason why we can’t get a result at Toa Payoh on Monday evening.
“They will want to come at us and try and score as soon as possible; I can’t see them sitting back, as they need the win. We, on the other hand, have nothing to lose.
“We know that they are very disciplined and very compact, and their defence is definitely superior to ours in terms of experience. They have tall fellows, who use their strength.
“But, really, this is a good chance for us, as everything is against them.”
Kanan added that he was looking to unleash a couple of newer faces in his lineup for the game at Toa Payoh.
“We are planning on making some midfield changes for this game,” he said.
“Two of our local players are going to be our central midfield mainstays in this game. Those two are Fabian Kwok and Shah Hirul.
“Fabian has recently finished his National Service, and Shah Hirul has been injured and is now almost 100 percent fit again, I would say 95 percent, probably.
“These guys have very strong character, which is what I want to see from my players. Shah Hirul came back against DPMM FC of Brunei and played well, I thought, while Fabian came off the bench for the last half-hour and is ready to play a big game tomorrow – they both are.”
Kanan had previously spoken of vulnerabilities in his team’s rearguard being a top concern, and this was a point he was keen to reiterate.
“I do have some concerns about my defence, still, as these boys are not as experienced as the opposition backline,” he stressed.
“Sometimes their mistakes can cost us the game, and I think that may be what happened against DPMM. But we will be under no pressure at Toa Payoh and can play well enough to get a result.”
With nothing to lose and good Prime League players keen to impress, Kanan may indeed have the right ingredients to upstage the more highly-rated Balestier, a side touted as potential title contenders for much of the early part of the season.
Geylang, by contrast, are among the candidates for the dreaded wooden spoon, with Kanan previously stating that such a calamity would bring shame to the Eagles.
The League Cup, then, offers some salvation for his beloved Eagles, who have struggled to make much impression this season.
A good run in this competition could be enough to silence the doubters, and there is every chance they can surprise everyone, as long as they put their best feet forward.