The FourFourTwo Preview: Balestier Khalsa vs Home United
Newcomers vs ‘veterans’.
In recent years, the RHB Singapore Cup has evolved into a notable club knockout competition in the region – with teams from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Australia taking part in previous editions.
However with the exception of Thailand’s Bangkok Glass in 2010, no other foreign invitees have ever come close to lifting the trophy before. It was no different this year, with four out of the five invited teams exiting after the first round. The last team standing, Philippines’s Loyola Meralco Sparks, were soon stopped in their tracks by Home United in the quarter-finals.
There is little doubt that Home United are the favourites for this game. The Protectors have reached the final seven times in the tournament’s 17-year history, winning it a record six times (2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2011 and 2013).
League-wise, it has not been the best of seasons for Home, as they struggled for consistency despite having arguably the strongest squad on paper. With the immaculate Lee Kwan-Woo supporting Qiu Li, Bruno Castanheira, Fazrul Nawaz and Indra Sahdan in attack, they have the firepower to blow away any team in theory. However, their forwards have struggled for goals recently, with the club relying on defenders Kwon Da-kyung and Song In-young to find the net.
At least they can be comforted by yet another good run in the Cup. Dispatching Cambodia’s Nagacorp and the Sparks respectively, they overcame their sternest test in Brunei DPMM in the semi-finals. 3-1 down on aggregate in the second leg, the Cup holders launched an impressive comeback through Sirina Camara on the stroke of half time before captain Noh Rahman and Song scored in the last seven minutes to send the Protectors faithful into dreamland.
On the other hand, this is unprecedented territory for Balestier Khalsa as they participate in their first ever Singapore Cup final.
Chairman S. Thavaneson had talked up title chances in pre-season but a six-match winless streak in the first round of the S.League meant an altered objective of finishing inside the top six. Things gradually improved as they hit form towards the end of second round, snatching sixth spot away from Hougang United at the death.
They also went a dream run in the Cup; beating Warriors FC convincingly in the first round before riding their luck to overcome Geylang International and Tampines Rovers via penalty shootouts at the end of both two-legged affairs. Central to their success has been goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam’s contributions; the 27-year-old saved two penalties in the shootout against the Eagles in the quarter-finals, before saving three and scoring the winning penalty himself in the upset of the Stags in the semis.
Thus here they are - one step away from a first-ever AFC Cup spot and possibly adding SGD100,000 to their coffers.
Balestier Khalsa (4-2-3-1): Zaiful Nizam (GK); Jaslee Hatta (captain), Emir Lotinac, Nurullah Hussein, Syed Thaha; Poh Yifeng, Jonathan Xu; Zulkiffli Hassim, Park Kang-Jin, Kim Minho; Goran Ljubojevic.
Home United (4-3-1-2): Shahril Jantan (GK); Masrezwan Masturi, Song In-young, Kwon Da-kyung, Juma’at Jantan; Yasir Hanapi, Noh Rahman (captain), Sirina Camara; Lee Kwan-Woo; Fazrul Nawaz, Bruno Castanheira.
Key Battle I: Goran Ljubojevic vs Shahril Jantan
Ljubojevic has been one of the key reasons why Balestier have continued to excel in 2014. The 31-year-old has lived up to his ‘marquee player’ tag, using his 1.9m frame to bring others into play and being the focal point of the Tigers’ attack. Accounting for almost half of their 46 goals in the league this season, the former Dinamo Zagreb forward will certainly pose the biggest threat to the Home defence.
Protectors fans will hope goalkeeper Shahril is up to the task. The 34-year-old has taken flak at times for the lack of clean sheets, but there should be little doubt with regards to his big-game temperament. He has been on the winning side in four previous Cup finals and his experience will come in handy in this vital game.
Key Battle II: Emir Lotinac vs Lee Kwan-Woo
While Ljubojevic has been the one banging in the goals and grabbing all the plaudits, Lotinac has been a quiet contributor with his assured defending helping the Tigers to the third-most stingiest defence in the league this season. With captain Paul Cunningham out for lengthy periods this season, the 27-year-old Serbian has helped ensured the defence stays solid together with his new defensive partners, be it Jonathan Xu or rookie Nurullah Hussein.
His presence will be crucial in shackling the threat posed by Lee in the Home midfield. While the Korean veteran has failed to replicate the high standards from last season, his influence and playmaking ability means that he is still a big threat to any defence. The former Suwon Bluewings player will hope to reproduce last year’s MVP performance in the final, where he scored one and assisted two to effectively settle the contest inside the first 30 minutes.
The Coaches - The rookie vs the former World Cupper
Prior to this season, Marko Kraljevic’s CV only consisted of his stints managing the Prime League sides of Balestier and Woodlands Wellington. It has not always been easy for the Croatian after making the step up this season. However credit to the 49-year-old, he has slowly moulded the Tigers into a gritty outfit which is hard to break down.
A trophy in his first year as a professional coach will raise his stock even higher.
Meanwhile the jury is still out on Lee Lim-Saeng in his fifth season in charge of Home. Having represented South Korea in the 1998 World Cup as a player and also a stint at Koreans giants Suwon Bluewings as a first-team coach, his hard-earned experience was thought to be the X-factor that Home United needed.
While he has led them to three Cup finals in five years, he has continually failed to deliver the elusive S.League title which they last won in 2003. After a poor season in which the Protectors finished fourth, the pressure is on the 42-year-old ahead of this game.
Facts and Figures
- If Home United wins, it will be their third Singapore Cup title in four years.
- This is Noh Rahman’s and Shahril Jantan’s third successive Singapore Cup final (they were part of SAFFC’s winning team in 2012 before joining Home last year).
- Shahril Jantan is currently the most successful player in Singapore Cup history, having won it four times (2007, 2008 and 2012 with SAFFC, 2013 with Home).
- Lee Lim-Saeng could become the most successful coach in Singapore Cup history, having won it in 2011 and 2013
- Balestier Khalsa’s Sofiyan Abdul Hamid scored for Home United in last season’s Cup final against Tanjong Pagar United.
Balestier has got the rub of the green thus far in this year’s competition and we think it’ll continue - The Tigers to upset Home 2-1.