AFC Champions League Qualifiers | Salt Lake Stadium | Wed 27 Jan | 7pm AST (9.30pm SGT)
The first real test for the Tampines class of 2016.
It has been quite an off-season for Singapore football, with Tampines Rovers hogging most of the headlines.
After a second successive season without silverware, ambitious new chairman Krishna Ramachandra has gone for almost wholesale change in the Stags squad – retaining just five players from 2015.
In came nine LionsXII members, last season’s Singaporean top scorer Fazrul Nawaz, experienced heads like Noh Rahman and Yasir Hanapi, as well as a certain Jermaine Pennant.
Tampines Rovers' Form
- Home United 2-3 Tampines (S.League)
- Albirex Niigata (S) 0-1 Tampines (S.League)
- Tampines 1-1 Harimau Muda (S.League)
- Tampines 2-0 Hougang United (Friendly)
- Tampines 1-0 JDT II (Friendly)
It is finally looking like a squad which could be worthy of their ‘Mighty Stags’ tag. However, looking good on paper does not necessarily translate to good results on the pitch, as they learnt last season.
So far, results in pre-season have been positive, with a 2-0 win against fellow S.League side Hougang United and a 1-0 victory against Malaysia Premier League side Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) II.
However, the real test will come on Wednesday evening when Tampines travel to Kolkata to play against India’s Mohun Bagan in the first of three qualifying rounds for the 2016 AFC Champions League.
Their bid will not be helped by the absence of Pennant, who was not registered as a Tampines player in time to be named to the squad.
The former Arsenal and Liverpool winger has proven his class in two friendlies played so far, recording an assist in each, so how will the Stags fare without him?
I-League champions Mohun Bagan will not be an easy test for the Stags considering their pedigree as India’s most successful club.
The Mariners pipped Bengaluru to win their fourth title last term and have kicked off the new campaign on the right note, winning two of their first three league matches in the defence of their trophy.
Mohun Bagan Form
- Mohun Bagan 4-1 Kalighat Milan Sangha (Calcutta Premier Division)
- Mohun Bagan 0-0 Techno Aryan (Calcutta Premier Division)
- Mohun Bagan 3-1 Aizawl (I-League)
- Mohun Bagan 4-2 Salgaocar (I-League)
- Mohun Bagan 1-1 East Bengal (I-League)
After a 3-1 win against Aizawl and a 4-2 victory over Salgaocar, they duly held arch-rivals East Bengal 1-1 in the much-anticipated Kolkata Derby, the most anticipated game in Indian football, over the weekend.
Watched by a crowd of 62,342, Mohun fell behind to a 63rd-minute goal by East Bengal’s Ranty Martins but salvaged a point 13 minutes from time through a superb header from Cornell Glen.
The result should set them up nicely for their clash against Tampines as they look to go one step closer to becoming the first Indian side to qualify for Asia’s premier club competition.
Outside of Pennant, Tampines have a full squad to choose from.
Judging from how they shaped up in their recent friendly matches, there should not be too many surprises over their starting XI. Izwan Mahbud will start in goal behind potentially a back four of Ismadi Mukhtar, Kwon Jun, Afiq Yunos and Shakir Hamzah. Yasir Hanapi and Izzdin Shafiq have been preferred in midfield so far, but captain Fahrudin Mustafic is not out of contention to start as well.
Jordan Webb and Hafiz Sujad should patrol the flanks, with playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman threading balls through for Fazrul Nawaz to create havoc against the hosts' defence, with the latter expected to test his striking credentials against Mohun Bagan custodian Debjit Majumder.
The hosts will be counting on the services of four foreigners to triumph on the evening, with 36-year-old towering Brazilian defender Luciano Sabrosa marshalling their backline while former Sanfrecce Hiroshima midfielder Katsumi Yusa pulls the strings from midfield.
Haiti international winger Sony Norde provides both pace and width, while former Trinidad and Tobago star Cornell Glen is responsible for leading the line.
There are three current India national team players within the ranks as well, with forward Jeje Lalpekhlua, who has recorded 12 goals in 32 international matches, a notable threat.
Player to Watch: Cornell Glen
If Tampines want to triumph, it is no secret they will have to stop Glen at all costs.
The 35-year-old can boast a wealth of experience after playing in Major League Soccer (MLS) with LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes. He also featured for Trinidad and Tobago at the 2006 World Cup alongside Manchester United legend Dwight Yorke, and has racked up 23 goals in a total of 69 international outings.
The experienced campaigner joined Mohun Bagan at the end of last season and has already hit the ground running with four goals in three league matches.
Tampines coach V Sundramoorthy is under pressure to deliver after a lacklustre first year in charge which yielded zero silverware.
The 50-year-old, who won the 2013 Malaysia Super League with the LionsXII, is hoping that his star-studded squad can turn on the style this campaign, with Wednesday’s showpiece an ideal platform to issue a statement.
Meanwhile, Sundramoorthy’s Mohun Bagan counterpart Sanjoy Sen is hoping to lead his side in replicating last season’s I-League title heroics as he enters his third year at the club.
Under the leadership of the 55-year-old, the Mariners lost just three games en route to the 2015 I-League title.
Facts and Figures
Neither side has made it to the AFC Champions League proper. Tampines faltered in the first qualifying round of the 2014 playoffs, losing 2-1 to Hong Kong’s South China in extra time.
Both sides faced off in the 2007 AFC Cup group stages. Tampines won 2-0 at home courtesy of Noh Alam Shah’s brace, while the away leg ended 0-0.
Of the current Tampines side, captain Fahrudin Mustafic and midfielder Shahdan Sulaiman are the sole survivors from that campaign.
Mohun Bagan 1 Tampines 2. No easy task snatching a victory away in Kolkata, but the Stags should prevail if they can perform to their potential.