Balestier put up valiant fight in narrow AFC Cup loss to Kaya

Singapore representatives Balestier Khalsa surrendered top spot in the AFC Cup Group F after being edged out 1-0 by Philippines’ Kaya FC at the Rizal Memorial Stadium on Tuesday night. 

Antonio Ugarte’s solitary goal early in the second half was enough to separate the two sides and help Kaya overtake Balestier at the summit of the group.  

The Tigers were looking to follow up on last week’s surprise victory over Kitchee SC but they were unable to find the cutting edge upfront.

They were not helped by the absence of Croatian forward Miroslav Kristic, who was named on the bench due to a knock suffered in their S.League draw against Warriors FC four days ago.

Syafiq Zainal took up the lone striker role, but the former LionsXII man found the going tough against a resolute Kaya defence led by long-time club skipper Alexander “Aly” Borromeo.

Marko Kraljevic’s game plan was then disrupted midway through the first half, with Jamil Ali having to come on for the injured Shah Hirul.

As expected, Kaya dominated most of the proceedings and went close on a few occasions – most notably in the 38th minute when Junior Munoz picked out OJ Porteria in the box, but the latter’s low shot was well smothered by Balestier goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam.

The first half ended goalless, but that was to change three minutes after the break.

Jovin Bedic’s speculative shot was deflected into the path of Ugarte, who swivelled well just inside the box before firing a fierce finish into the bottom left corner.

Balestier recovered well from the setback though as they piled on the pressure thereafter, with Jamil’s thunderous volley from close range drawing a top-drawer save from Kaya custodian Matthew Acton.

Fazli Ayob then fired a volley from the edge of the box well over, before Jamil’s shot was charged down by Kaya’s Japanese centre-back Masanari Omura.

At the other end, Zaiful had to produce a couple of good saves from goalscorer Ugarte to keep his side in the game.

The Tigers could have grabbed the equaliser 14 minutes before the end when the ball bobbled around dangerously in the Kaya box, but Zulkiffli Hassim – scorer of the winning goal against Kitchee – was unable to repeat his heroics as he flashed his shot disappointingly wide.

Time eventually ran out for the visitors as they recorded their first defeat of this AFC Cup campaign.

Despite the loss, Balestier are still second in Group F due to Kitchee unexpectedly being held 0-0 to Maldives’ New Radiant on the same night.

Kraljevic’s men will now turn their attentions back to the S.League where they have yet to win in four matches so far.

The Toa Payoh-based club will face Hougang United, Home United and Tampines Rovers before hosting Kaya in the return match at the Jalan Besar Stadium on April 12.

Photo: Balestier Khalsa

Video: AFC