The FourFourTwo Preview: Warriors FC vs Balestier Khalsa

Great Eastern SG50 Charity Shield | Jalan Besar Stadium | Sun 1 March | 7.30pm

Billed as

Last five meetings

  • Warriors FC 0-1 Balestier Khalsa (S.League, October 2014)
  • Warriors FC 1-1 Balestier Khalsa (S.League, June 2014)
  • Warriors FC  1-3 Balestier Khalsa (Singapore Cup, May 2014)
  • Balestier Khalsa 2-2 Warriors FC (S.League, March 2014)
  • Warriors FC 1-1 Balestier Khalsa (S.League, July 2013) 

The battle of the wounded animals.

The lowdown

After a long wait, the 2015 S.League season is finally here. Just like in the past four years, we will have the traditional curtain raiser between the previous season’s big winners to kick start the year.

Of course there is much more at stake than just a Charity Shield, following last season’s decision to have this game double up as a league encounter. It proved to be a masterstroke as we saw a much more fiercely-contested affair than previous years.  

Tampines Rovers slogged it out with Home United over 90 minutes, with the former edging out the latter by a solitary goal. Both teams however ended the year without any extra silverware, and we have two new teams for this year’s edition.

First up is Warriors FC, the reawakened giants, who picked up their first league title since 2009. After two successive seventh-place finishes, there were few who believed them championship contenders. But boy, did they confound the preseason predictions.

One defeat in the first nine games set the tone before they went through a bumpy spell midway through. Fortunately for the Warriors, they managed to rediscover their focus and picked up maximum points in the last four games of the season to seal a satisfying triumph – a laudable feat given that Brunei DPMM were ahead for the majority of the campaign.

No doubt their ambitious gaffer Alex Weaver is hoping to build on last season’s success, but it looks easier said than done. While all is intact on the foreigners’ front where they retained all five imports in Marin Vidosevic, Kevin McCann, Thomas Beattie, Miroslav Pejic and Nicolas Velez, they lost key locals in Goalkeeper of the Year Hassan Sunny, experienced defenders Zulfadli Zainal Abidin and Ismail Yunos, as well as rising star Suria Prakash.

In came the lesser heralded likes of former LionsXII defender Emmeric Ong, former Woodlands winger Andy Ahmad, as well as ex-Hougang United duo Syaqir Sulaiman and Fazli Jaafar whom still lack big-match experience.

The Warriors’ season got off to an ominous start with a demoralising 3-1 home defeat to Indonesia’s Persipura Jayapura in the AFC Cup and they will return to the same venue looking to prove it was just an early season blip.

Their opponents on Sunday are Balestier Khalsa, who punched above their weight and had a spectacular 2014 campaign. Things were not that smooth initially, with key players like Paul Cunningham and Park Kang-Jin having long injury layoffs. However the latter’s return inspired an upsurge in form as they picked up four wins and a draw to snatch a top-six spot at the death.

Their Singapore Cup campaign was all the more memorable, beating Warriors convincingly in the first round, eliminating Geylang International and Tampines via penalties before dispatching Home United in the final – picking up only their second ever trophy in the club’s history.

Similar to Warriors, Balestier lost a number of key players in this off-season. Only Serbian defender Emir Lotinac remains out of last season’s five foreigners, with the likes of Cunningham, Park, Kim Minho and Goran Ljubojevic all released. In their places are former Hougang United defender Igor Cerina, young Serbian midfielder Tarik Cmajcanin, promising forward Robert Pericic and Croatian hotshot Miroslav Kristic.

A 3-0 defeat to Hong Kong giants Kitchee SC earlier this week means the jury is still out on the new-look Tigers side, but at least they can count on the psychological advantage over the Warriors – they have not lost to the latter in regulation time in their last 10 head-to-head encounters.

Probable line-ups

Warriors FC: Neezam Aziz (GK); Syaqir Sulaiman, Daniel Bennett (captain), Marin Vidosevic, Irwan Shah; Miroslav Pejic, Shi Jiayi, Thomas Beattie, Kevin McCann, Hafiz Rahim; Nicolas Velez.

Balestier Khalsa: Zaiful Nizam (GK, captain); Hanafi Salleh, Emir Lotinac, Igor Cerina, Ho Wai Loon; Fadhil Noh, Poh Yifeng, Jonathan Xu, Tarik Cmajcanin, Zulkiffli Hassim; Miroslav Kristic.

Photo: Football Association of Singapore

Key Battles

  • Nicolas Velez vs Zaiful Nizam

Named the S.League’s Young Player of the Year last season, Velez had a barnstorming campaign – forming an almost-telepathic understanding with Pejic upfront and scored a total of 21 goals to drive the Warriors to the title. His pace in attack and coolness in front of goal means he is the biggest threat to the Tigers’ defence.

However, if there is one man who can stop Velez, it is the ever-dependable Zaiful. The 27-year-old has poured scorn on suggestions that his 1.74m frame is detrimental to his goalkeeping career. His outstanding reflexes and shot-stopping ability is a huge reason why Balestier had the third-most stingiest defence (conceding 34 goals in 27 games) in the league last year.

  • Daniel Bennett vs Miroslav Kristic

Although former national teammate Aleksandar Duric has finally retired, it seems Bennett will not go away without a fight. Recently turned 37, the evergreen defender is still performing at the highest level. While the three-time AFF Suzuki Cup winner may not be the most agile of defenders, his astute reading of the game and hard-tackling style ensures he is still very much Mr Dependable for Warriors FC.

He will have to contend with ‘new kid in the block’ Kristic, who ironically came via the recommendation of former Warriors legend Mirko Grabovac. The 25-year-old has the unenviable task of filling Ljubojevic’s boots but he has been adapting well so far in pre-season where he scored a basket of goals. The former NK Imotski forward’s aerial ability and sharpness in front of goal will prove crucial in what could be an edgy match-up.

The Coaches – The ‘distracted’ one vs the stand-in

Both coaches come into this game with less-than-ideal preparations, something which could well prove pivotal.

Alex Weaver, who masterminded last season’s spectacular campaign for the Warriors, is under investigation from the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) for an alleged unauthorised approach for Hougang United keeper Fadhil Salim. This ongoing case has created uncertainties over the young Englishman’s coaching future and it will be interesting to see how he reacts to this possible crisis.

Meanwhile, Balestier assistant coach D Tokijan looks set to fill in for head coach Marko Kraljevic, who has been away in native Croatia attending to a family bereavement. The former Singapore legend, who has been taking charge of training session for the past week, did well to coax a spirited display against Kitchee the last time out and he will need to use every ounce of his tactical acumen to take down the reigning S.League champions.

Facts and Figures

  • This is the third time that the Warriors are participating in the Charity Shield – they picked up the inaugural Shield in 2008 by beating Home 5-4 on penalties after the match had ended 1-1 in regulation time, while sharing it in 2012 when they drew 1-1 with Swedish side AIK Solna. 
  • This will be the eighth time that the Charity Shield has been held. Four of the last seven Shield winners went on to lift the S.League trophy – Warriors in 2008, and Tampines in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
  • The last time the Warriors beat Balestier in regulation time was back in June 2011 (Miroslav Karoglan scored twice for Richard Bok’s team in a 3-1 win away at Toa Payoh Stadium) – Balestier’s Poh Yifeng is the only remaining player from both sides who featured in that fixture.

FourFourTwo prediction

It should be a closely-fought affair, with nothing much to separate both sides. 1-1 after full time and possibly Balestier to nick it on penalties.