Marko Kraljevic’s men were organised at the back and clinical in front of goal to claim all three points against the Hong Kong side.
Right from the get go, it was quite apparent how this Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup game would pan out – Kitchee SC would pass the ball around to establish their reputable possession football while Balestier Khalsa would sit deep, defend well and hit on the counter.
And there was one winner at the end of the 90 minutes. It was Kraljevic’s men, claiming all three points in a precious 1-0 victory at Jalan Besar Stadium.
Going into the game as underdogs, Balestier played out of their skin to snatch the upset. The defensive unit of Fadli Kamis, Hanafi Salleh, Emir Lotanic and Sheikh Hadi can be proud of their performance for keeping the Hong Kong side at bay.
Kitchee saw most of the possession in the first half and their best chance came through Christian Kwesi in the 25th minute when his shot was just shy off the post.
However, five minutes later, a brilliant counter-attack opened the scoring when winger Fadhil Noh brought down a long ball calmly and drove it with power for Zulkiffli Hassim to score from six yards.
Three minutes later, a similar move would happen again. This time, Miroslav Kristic controlled a lobbed through ball and got past centre-back Kim Taemin, only to be greeted by the onrushing goalkeeper Wang Zhengpeng, who brought down the Croatian.
Referee Kim Hee Gon had no choice but to award the penalty and show a yellow to Wang, but the goalkeeper redeemed himself by saving the penalty. Kitchee could have then gone into the break level but Rufino Del Burgo’s close-range effort was just off the post.
The second half panned out the same way but Kitchee would rue how they missed several chances, particularly in the 79th minute when substitute Hirokane Harima’s shot deflected off Fadli Kamis but it was tipped over by the steady Zaiful Nizam.
Right at the death, Kitchee would throw all bodies forward and pile the pressure on Balestier through corners and free-kicks but Balestier stood strong and saw the game out.
Kraljevic was contented with the performance although he admitted he was kept at the edge of his seat, particularly after Kristic’s penalty miss.
“I was worried that those missed chances will result in us conceding a goal.” said the 50-year-old.
He added: “We expected them to keep possession and if you wanted us to keep possession against them then we would lose the game. I must play counter-attacking football to win the game and the hard work paid off.”
Kitchee SC’s current team manager Alex Chu, who just took over from Abraham Garcia, pointed to several factors that contributed to this upset. The reason was that their usual foreign players did not feature and this game was their fourth in 10 days.
“We only played two foreign players but when we won last year we had four foreigners in the team, but it was a good experience for the young players today.” said the interim manager.
“The players were tired from playing four games in 10 days, the temperature and humidity was different and in the second half, the players found it difficult.”
However, Alex is confident of finishing within the top two in Group F as they will next play back-to-back games against New Radiant.
“Sure, Kitchee will qualify. We will get a point at Maldives (against New Radiant) and try to win the game at home.”
Having won a point in Maldives from a 2-2 draw against New Radiant, Kraljevic never expected to be on top of the table after two games.
But now that they are, he asserted that their hard work must continue throughout the Tigers' remaining AFC Cup campaign.
“I never expected to be here. It was all work hard for the both games. It will not be easy to play against Kaya, I watched them play against Kitchee and they played good football and it will be tough,” he said.
Sitting with four points at the top, Balestier will travel to Manila for their match against Kaya FC while second placed Kitchee with three points will host New Radiant at Hong Kong.
Photos: Weixiang Lim / FFTcomments