2015 S.League Club Preview: Balestier Khalsa
What happened in 2014?
By their standards, Balestier overachieved last season as they clinched another domestic trophy in the form of a first Singapore Cup. Their fairy-tale run to the top saw them defeat the 'Big Three' of Warriors FC, Tampines Rovers and Home United in the first round, semi-final and final respectively.
The Tigers endured a more erratic league campaign, with goals from key striker Goran Ljubojevic inspiring them to finish in the top half after a late surge of form that saw them pip Hougang into sixth place before the split round.
The controversies surrounding the departures of long-serving club servants Paul Cunningham and Park Kang Jin has cast a dark shadow on the club run by long-time chairman Thavaneson Selvaretnam.
With only Emir Lotinac retained and several young players signed to fill up the first time ranks, a massive challenge awaits the club as they deal with the dual commitments of the S.League and their first AFC Cup campaign.
The experience of the retained locals and the consistency of the new import signings could be key to answering whether 2015 is set to be a season of consolidation or struggle for them.
The Gaffer – Marko Kraljevic
The Singapore permanent resident exceeded expectations in his first season as head coach of a local club, delivering not only results but also serving up an open gameplan revolving around Ljubojevic.
A powerful attacking midfielder in his playing days, he has advocated a similar approach as a tactician as he inspires confidence in the players under his charge.
His coaching capabilities will be put to a sterner test this year as rival local clubs thirst for revenge and foreign opponents target holes in his tactics.
A collective espirit de corps mentality from the surviving club stalwarts in Poh Yifeng, Yusiskandar Yusop and Zaiful Nizam will help the squad overcome the loss of key players as they seek to make the sum greater than the parts.
Kraljevic’s willingness to blood young players will ensure the likes of Ho Wai Loon and Ignatius Ang play their natural games without fear of reproach after mistakes.
Balestier have historically struggled when they do not have a prolific striker in their books. The departure of Ljubojevic has left a huge void up front which his replacement Miroslav Kristic could struggle to fill.
The departure of Korean midfield dynamo Park has also left a gap where his all-action game in the middle of the park and final third will be sorely missed, as the technical staff find a way to replicate the effective link-up between midfield and attack.
A thin first-team squad filled with inexperienced locals could leave the Tigers short when suspensions and injuries come into the play during the course of the season.
Players to Watch
- Emir Lotinac
Balestier's only retained foreigner from 2014, the Croatian is comfortable playing in centre defence and competent in centre midfield.
His sound reading of the game was an important factor in the Cup success last season and his defensive qualities will be important as they take on sides stronger than them at home and in Asia.
- Zaiful Nizam
A lack of height does not hinder the 27-year-old goalkeeper’s ability to influence the game at the back with his superb reflexes and strong command in the area.
Having played a key part in the Cup triumph, his outfield colleagues will be banking on the club skipper to perform miracles between the posts this year in what is expected to be a tough campaign.
- Miroslav Kristic
Signed from Croatian second division side Imotski, the 25-year-old Croatian faces a huge challenge stepping into the boots of last year’s top scorer Ljubojevic.
While his ability to draw defenders out of position with his hold-up play goes without doubt, he will need to improve his predatory instinct in front of goal if Balestier are to lift themselves to mid-table stability.
Gary's 2015 S.League Prediction: 9th
The affable Kraljevic will continue to work his socks off with limited resources, but the thin squad depth will see Balestier struggle at the wrong end of the table this year.