AFC Cup preview: Can Tampines Rovers and Balestier Khalsa end years of hurt for Singapore clubs?
Four months on after the stunning AFC Cup triumph by Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim, Asia’s football second-tier club competition is back for a 13th edition.
Two clubs, Tampines Rovers and Balestier Khalsa, will be looking to fly the Singapore flag high in a competition that has not seen much joy for the Southeast Asian nation in recent years.
No Singapore club has progressed into the knockout stages since Home United did so in 2012. In 2013, both Warriors FC and Tampines went wayward. In 2014, Home and Tampines fell short.
Last year, Warriors and then-debutants Balestier were also unsuccessful – with the former losing all six of their group games to heap on the misery.
Indeed, it seemed so long ago (2004 to be exact) when both Geylang United (now Geylang International) and Home did the nation proud and went all the way into the last four. So what can we expect this year?
Tampines are placed in Group E along with Bangladesh champions Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club, Malaysia Cup holders Selangor FA and Philippines champions Ceres La Salle. Their first opponents will be Sheikh Jamal, whom are not in the best of conditions heading into this game.
The Bangladeshi side have lost a number of key local players like national team captain Mamunul Islam and his deputy Nasiruddin Chowdhury, while there is also a new coach at the helm in the form of Shafiqul Islam Manik, who just put pen to paper less than two weeks ago.
While pre-season preparations kicked off a month ago, the full squad only trained together for the first time days before this game. Playing against a team peppered with established Singapore internationals and a certain Jermaine Pennant, it seems like the visitors could be in for a baptism of fire.
Meanwhile, Balestier are placed in Group F along with Maldives champions New Radiant SC, Hong Kong champions Kitchee SC and Philippines’ powerhouse Kaya FC. They have already arrived in Male, Maldives, where they will face New Radiant in their opening match.
Things have been rather positive for the the 2005 AFC Cup semi-finalists despite overseeing a change of coach in the off-season. Croatian Nikola Kazazovic decided not to renew his contract after the title-winning season, and former Bulgarian international Yordan Stoykov was named as his replacement.
But that aside, New Radiant have managed to hang on to key personnel like Ahmed Abdulla, Mohamed Rasheed and Ali Fasir – all established Maldivian internationals – although the legendary Ibrahim Fazeel has left to join Wales’ sixth division club Bodorgan FC.
Tampines have a fully fit squad at their disposal, with Pennant responsible for providing the ammunition for Fazrul Nawaz to score the goals. Recent recruit, English-born hitman Billy Mehmet, is eligible for the AFC Cup and South Korean defender Kwon Jun has also been included in the squad.
Sheikh Jamal will be heavily reliant on their foreigners to produce the goods, with Emeka Darlington, Landing Darboe and new skipper Wedson Anselm expected to spearhead the frontline. New signing Cameroon-born Vietnamese Nguyen Hang Tcheuko Minh will be tasked to do the dirty job in the middle of the park.
For Balestier, striker Robert Pericic might not feature as he continues his recovery from the injury that kept him out of the game against the Garena Young Lions last week.
As for New Radiant, former Liverpool Academy player David Moli and Hamza Mohamed will look to breach the Tigers’ backline with Nigerian midfielder Sunday Patrick Okoro in support.
Facts and Figures
- This is Tampines’ eighth AFC Cup appearance (first since 2014). They have never gone past the quarter-finals, going out at that stage during 2005 to 2007.
- This is Balestier’s second AFC Cup appearance (first being last year). Last season, they finished last in their group after winning just one out of six matches.
- No Singaporean club has gone past the group stage since 2012. Home United did so that year, but fell to a 3-0 defeat to Iraq’s Al-Shorta.
Tampines to win 4-1, they look far too strong for their troubled Bangladeshi opponents.
Balestier, on the other hand, to lose 2-1. It is always a tricky trip when visiting the Maldives and the Tigers looks as though they are not prepared for the tough battle that awaits them.
Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo