FFT Singapore's man on the ground Kenneth Tan reflects on an entertaining opening week in the S.League...
Mrdakovic strikes first blood
In a game in which two marquee players came head-to-head, it was Miljan Mrdakovic who won the battle against Home United counterpart Lee Kwan-Woo.
It was a result that didn't look likely early on as the Korean playmaker thrilled the 3000-odd fans present with his dead ball deliveries and pinpoint passes, while the Serbian striker struggled to make an impact up front throughout the 90 minutes. However, it was Mrdakovic who had the last laugh as he scored what turned out to be the winning goal.
A hopeful punt into the box by Roberto Martinez seemed to pose little danger but the 31-year-old spun past two markers superbly after taking the ball down and slotted a neat finish underneath Shahril Jantan’s body.
With two goals in two games (including one during the Asian Champions League qualifier against South China) thus far, Mrdakovic's inability to provide proper hold-up play will matter little to Stags supporters if he continues his prolific scoring rate.
Rookie Nakatake upstages compatriot Shimono
Hougang United fans could be forgiven if they went into this new season fearing the worst, especially in central midfield which looked a bit lightweight after the departure of anchorman Tom Beattie. However his replacement Shunsuke Nakatake proved a more-than-able substitute as they drew 2-2 against Woodlands Wellington.
Small in stature, big in heart, the 23-year-old might just have charmed his way into Hougang hearts on debut. Despite plying his trade in amateur football just months ago, Take-san showed no signs of being overawed as he snapped into challenges and kept the ball moving in the middle of the park. In contrast, his more illustrious opponent Atsushi Shimono was kept largely anonymous during the game.
Nakatake capped his brilliant performance off with a superb curling cross which caught the Rams defence all at sea as winger Fazli Jaafar gleefully stabbed home.
Coach Amin Nasir was full of praise of his debutant after the game: “He has the quality for this level and did excellent in both defence and attack. He won a lot of aerial balls and cut down the supply of their midfield – that’s what he’s good at. He did a good job to shut out Shimono.”
Bright start for Kean in SE Asian adventure
All eyes were on former Blackburn Rovers manager Steve Kean at Jurong East Stadium last Saturday, as the league's highest-profile manager took centre stage. The 46-year-old got his tactics right in his first match in the Brunei DPMM hotseat as they overcame fellow title challengers Albirex Niigata (Singapore) with a slender one-goal victory.
After an early penalty converted by Brazilian Rodrigo Tosi, Kean’s side kept things compact at the back and rode out the result with stand-in goalkeeper Azman Ilham excelling towards the end. The display wasn’t all that delightful, but the Englishman seems happy to sacrifice style over substance as his side looks to challenge for honours this season.
“I wasn’t particularly pleased with the way we passed the ball, but I think we showed discipline when we didn't have possession,” he said at his post-match press conference. “I’ve said to the lads after the game that if you look at any team that wins the championship, there would be many games where they don’t play to their maximum and get points.”
Tigers’ title dreams not that far-fetched
Many eyebrows were raised when Balestier Khalsa chairman S Thavaneson announced his side's intention to win the 2014 S.League title, but their delightful opening-day result lent credence to what initially seemed like a lofty target.
The Tigers handed the Courts Young Lions a 4-0 mauling, with goals coming from four different scorers. Rookie coach Marko Kraljevic put out a 4-1-4-1 formation which looked something like an adventurous 4-1-2-3 when his side went forward, with marquee man Goran Ljubojevic being flanked by electric attackers Zulkiffli Hassim and Kim Minho. Their attacking moves were fluid and there was little surprise when they went three goals up just past the half-hour mark.
Korean playmaker Park Kang-Jin was the star of the show as he pulled the strings from midfield and curled home a superb freekick to complete the rout, while unheralded Poh Yifeng impressed in his new attacking midfield position. New Serbian centre-back Emir Lotinac also filled in the void left by Obadin Aikhena admirably.
It's still early days, but at least the Tigers have taken their maiden steps in this unlikeliest of title challenges as they topped the standings at the end of Round 1.
Experienced Eagles find no joy in Warriors’ den
After a lacklustre campaign in 2013 where his inexperienced side struggled to make an impact, Geylang International coach Kanan Vedhamuthu ditched his ‘youth-only’ policy this year by bringing in a number of seasoned local campaigners. However, it looks like it is still a work-in-progress for his new-look side as they slumped to an opening day defeat to Warriors FC.
The Eagles lost the ball far too many times in the first half, with young Argentinian central midfielder Franco Chivilo failing to provide any significant creative spark. Two goals down by the hour mark, they only found their feet in the attacking third 20 minutes from the end which was too little too late. Hafiz Nor’s late stunner (we did warn everyone on the dangers of not closing him down!) only served to hide an overall insipid display.
After being able to only name three substitutes on the bench, coach Kanan will hope that he has more players available for their next game which is away against a wounded Home United side.
Jaguars fail to convince despite opening victory
Considering the fact that they suffered a heavy defeat in this corresponding fixture last season, it would have been harsh to criticise Tanjong Pagar United in a game where they came from behind to claim all three points. However, the Jaguars will still need to improve significantly before they can rightfully be billed as title contenders.
Overrun during stretches by the youthful Harimau Muda B attackers, Tanjong Pagar could have conceded more if not for a superb defensive endeavour from centre-back Anthony Aymard and goalkeeper Aurelien Herisson. Their experience ultimately made the difference as the Jaguars managed to build from the back and overcome the early deficit. Despite not being fully fit, playmaker Kamel Ramdani showed his class by playing killer balls in for both goals.
Things should soon improve with the return of marquee forward Monsef Zerka from suspension, but coach Patrick Vallee will first need to figure out how to replace Ruzaini Zainal and Nor Azli Yusoff after their respective dismissals.
Cover Photo courtesy of Home United FC