Kraljevic wary of maiden AFC Cup challenge
Placed in Group F, Balestier Khalsa will travel to Hong Kong to face either Kitchee or Sun Pegasus on 24th February for their first match before concluding the cup campaign across the Causeway by playing against either Johor Darul Ta’zim or Selangor FA on 12th May.
The Tigers are heading into uncharted territory this season as they will juggle AFC Cup and league commitments for the first time in their history. Balestier head coach Marko Kraljevic readily admits that having multiple games per week may take its toll on his squad.
“It’s a bit tough, you know,” he mused.
“For every away trip, we’re going away for four days including travelling time and pre-match training sessions."
"Then we have to come back and play in the S.League, it’s going to be tiring, but that’s life – we have to live with this now."
“What will worry me are probable injuries, since we don’t have a big squad. We must work hard to recover.”
The 2014 S.League Coach of the Year is under no illusions of the magnitude of the task to get out of the group, which also includes India’s East Bengal.
“Kitchee beat Tampines(Rovers) 5-0 (at Jalan Besar Stadium) last season,” he recalled.
“I watched that game and they are a Spanish-like team who keeps possession very well. I don’t need to talk about Johor; they’re the champions of Malaysia and they take the best players from their country."
"They have the best 3+1 (foreigners’ ruling for AFC matches) in Hariss Harun who’s the perfect signing for them."
"I don’t think we’re prepared (for this challenge) yet, since it’s the first time for most of us. We don’t have the experience yet. But as long as we can stay free of injuries, we can fight.”
Off the pitch, the Tigers have been hitting the headlines for the wrong reasons. At least on it, things are slightly more positive, with plans beginning to firm up for the upcoming season.
Having only retained centre-back Emir Lotinac among their five foreigners last year, the club have moved fast to fill up the four vacancies.
Defender Igor Cerina has been snapped up from Hougang United and should fill former captain Paul Cunningham’s void, while 20-year-old Serbian attacking midfielder Tarik Cmajcanin looks like the natural replacement for Park Kang-Jin.
Meanwhile, Croatian forwards Miroslav Kristic and Robert Pericic will replace Kim Minho and Goran Ljubojevic in the forwards' department, with Kraljevic talking up their credentials after his side’s 2-2 friendly draw against Johor Darul Ta’zim II at Toa Payoh Stadium last Thursday.
Forme NK Imotski striker Kristic bagged both goals for the Tigers – nodding home Cmajcanin’s cross inside the opening eight minutes, before curling home a 25-yard freekick midway through the second half to salvage a draw – after Leandro Velazquez and Zaquan Adha had turned things around for the Malaysian Premier League side in the first half.
“It’s not easy to replace Goran who scored 27 goals for us last year. Goran and Kim scored 30 over goals together, but I think these two have the potential to do better,” he said after the game.
“We always want to raise the bar each season and do even better. This guy (Kristic) scored two goals while the second striker (Pericic) did well, considering he arrived in Singapore just last week.”
Cmajcanin and Pericic will however, see no action in the AFC Cup, having been left out of the 25-man squad due to the 3+1 ruling.
Balestier Khalsa’s AFC Cup squad
Zaiful Nizam, Rizal Rahman, Naqiuddin Nodin, Solehudin Abu
Yusiskandar Yusop, Hanafi Salleh, Syarifuddin Suhaimi, Emir Lotinac, Igor Cerina, Nurullah Hussein, Ho Wai Loon, Krishnan
Noor Akid Nordin, Jonathan Xu, Poh Yifeng, Afiq Tan, Ridwan Jamil, Ignatius Ang, Zulkiffli Hassim, Ahmad Syahir, Mahathir Azeman, Jeremy Lam, Khairuddin Omar
Fadhil Noh, Miroslav Kristic
Photo: Andrew Lim / Balestier Khalsa FC