RHB Singapore Cup: Sparks positive despite uphill task
Photography by Muhammad Yusuf
They may be behind, by two goals no less, but they are not down.
Far from seeing the second leg of their RHB Singapore Cup semifinals tie with Tampines Rovers as an impossible task, Loyola Meralco Sparks of the Philippines go into their match on Sunday evening in clearly upbeat mood.
The Filipinos are trailing 0-2 following the first leg at Clementi Stadium on Thursday, and to score at least twice against one of the S.League’s finest sides is no small challenge.
They looked fresh as ever, though, when meeting a select group of media members at their hotel on the fringes of Little India, little more than a stone’s throw from Jalan Besar Stadium, where they would meet Tampines again on Sunday.
“Yesterday it was very difficult for us,” said Loyola spokesman Joseph Vincent Santos, just hours after his team’s first-leg loss.
Difficult it certainly was, as they had a man sent off and had a goal disallowed by referee Sukhbir Singh at a vital point in the second half.
“We had a game plan in mind, as we’d seen Tampines play a couple of times,” he continued.
“We created some good early chances, but unfortunately we couldn’t take them. We took encouragement from the way we played, however, and we still showed plenty of promise, which we can take into the second leg on Sunday.
“We had given special attention to containing (Aleksandar) Duric, but we didn’t put enough pressure on the others in the team by closing them down too, and then we conceded a second goal.”
That second goal, it might be added, was scored by Ahmad Latiff Khamarudin, who is as much the heart and soul of Tampines as his skipper Duric is, even if he does not share the international profile of the 42-year-old.
Loyola went into the game without regular skipper James Younghusband, who was suffering from the flu and was really only up to sitting on the bench.
They also left out another of their attacking midfielders in Mark Hartmann, but that was later explained as having been done for tactical reasons.
As soon as the team went a goal down Younghusband came off the bench despite not having trained, and Hartmann then followed on 67 minutes after the Stags had gone two goals ahead.
Those moves lifted the team, and when they won a free kick close to the hour mark, taken from out wide by Kim Woo Chul and headed past Sasa Dreven by newcomer Chad Gould, a huge throng of Filipino fans thought their beloved team had clawed their way back into the game.
But the goal was ruled out for an infringement and Kim was sent off.
Gould, part of a new defensive axis along with Kim, was obviously disappointed, yet he confessed that the team had done as well as he might have hoped given the early stage of their preparation for a new season back home.
Although the Sparks finished only third of ten teams in the 2011-12 season, five points behind the top two teams, they scored more goals than both of them by quite some distance, finding the net 66 times and enjoying the best goal difference overall.
If they are to win on Sunday, they will need to put on their shooting boots, as defence was not their strong suit last season and, if Thursday’s match is anything to go by, some glaring deficiencies remain on that front.
Yet Gould, who has played for the Philippines national team before and had been based in England for some time in his youth, remained optimistic.
“To be honest, I was surprised how well we played,” he enthused.
“It was our first competitive game together, and after Tampines scored quite early I was afraid they were going to destroy us!
“We need to score first in the second leg, and then I feel we can go on with it.
“Whatever happens on Sunday, though, it’s been a great experience for everyone here. Travelling together as a team has brought us together really well, and the bonding we have achieved just by being here as a group in the hotel is worth a great deal.”
With Younghusband feeling a lot better and looking likely to join his younger brother Phil from the start this time, the well-supported Sparks could yet make it to their first RHB Singapore Cup final.
Santos was not about to disclose how his team would engineer such a feat, naturally enough, and he was keen to get down to discussing tactical matters with his Korean coach Kim Chul Su and several senior players as he ushered the media from the meeting room politely after the interviews were over.
One man who was unhappy with his efforts on Thursday was goalkeeper Ref Delany Cuaresma, who accepted responsibility for the first goal, at least.
“The first goal was my mistake; I was really hungry to play as it’s been four months since we had a decent game,” said the Philippines international.
“As a goalkeeper, I know how confidence can go down after conceding a goal like that. If the other players then have to give 110 percent to make up for my mistake, I have to give 200 percent from then on myself to show them my own commitment.”
Cuaresma was being hard on himself, though, as he made a number of important saves later in the game against a Tampines side that always threatened to go three or four goals up, thanks to a greater share of the ball.
Another player who would have to raise his game as well by his own estimates is Phil Younghusband, who will have to do without his Korean sidekick Jeong Byeong Yeol this time, just when the two of them are striking up a solid partnership.
“I think Duric showed how deadly he was by scoring from virtually the first chance he had in the game,” he said admiringly of the Tampines skipper.
“He’s an inspiration to all of us with such sharpness at the age of 42. I had far more chances than he did and couldn’t even get one!”
Looking forward, Santos agreed with the suggestion that playing at Jalan Besar in the second leg would be a big help to his team.
“It’s not that we’ve played on that surface so much, more the fact that the pitch is so big compared to Clementi,” he explained.
“And our fans will be much closer to the pitch, with no running track between them and the team. The supporters were tremendous the last time we played there, and we want to give them something to remember by winning the second match.
“Unfortunately we’ll be without one key defender, but this team’s not too different from the one that played here last time. Only some shuffling of positions has happened since then, apart from the arrivals of Kim and Chad.”
Some more shuffling may be in order for Santos and his coach Kim, who will likely be burning some midnight oil in the days leading up to the second leg.
“I hope you all slept a lot better than we did,” quipped the affable team manager.
Tampines coach Tay Peng Kee was probably not having as much trouble sleeping as his rival coaching staff were, but he still had some concerns despite winning the first leg.
“We should have scored more than we did, and I am not confident that two goals is a big enough lead, especially with Benoit (Croissant) suspended,” he noted.
Croissant was given a stoppage-time dismissal for a second bookable offence.
“Fortunately, from what I can see, there are only a few knocks among the rest of the team, so we should have enough fit players at least.
“It was also fortunate that the goal they scored did not stand, as we did not deal very well with their free kick, though I believe the referee was perfectly correct in disallowing the goal and sending the player off.
“We ought to have scored at least one more when Aleks was ruled offside after that, a decision I disputed strongly.”
Any similar disputes in the second leg could find Tay outshouted by what Loyola officials forecast as a large turnout from the local Filipino community, especially with this match taking place on a weekend.
But with a two-goal lead for the Stags to protect and plenty of exciting football to see, Singaporeans would be well-advised to turn up in sizeable numbers themselves and offer similar support to a team chasing the domestic double this season.