S.League Club Preview: Balestier Khalsa
What happened last season?
Last year was a successful domestic campaign by the club's modest standards. Balestier finally clinched their first piece of silverware when they won the League Cup in September after a 4-0 final thumping of Brunei DPMM FC.
They also excelled in the other local club competitions, finishing in their highest league position of fourth since 1996 and reaching the semi-finals of the Singapore Cup where they were narrowly edged out by eventual champions Home United.
Under former head coach Darren Stewart, the Tigers had infused a strong work ethic with an injection of flair up front in the form of striker Qiu Li. They were not just tough to beat at the back, they were giving opposing defences nightmares at the other end.
Home ground: Toa Payoh Stadium
Nickname: The Tigers
Last Season: 4th
League Cup: Champions
Singapore Cup: Semi-finalists
While the majority of last season's successful side is retained for the upcoming domestic campaign, three key departures - former coach Darren Stewart, Nigerian centre back Obadin Aikhena and Qiu Li - mean a repeat of 2013 is looking like a tall order.
The departure of the former gaffer will be felt the most as the Australian has forged a strong camaraderie in the squad and commanded fierce personal loyalty among many of the Tigers. It will be interesting to see whether incoming head coach Marko Kraljevic will be able to demand the same level of respect with the squad he inherits.
With the central-based club eager to fast track future stars of tomorrow into the first team, it remains to be seen whether the newcomers will be able to blend in well with the rest. Succeed and a repeat of last year might not be too far fetched an idea; struggle and a long season looms ahead.
The experience and unity forged by the surviving Tigers over the past two seasons will be a tremendous asset as they are familiar with one another's styles of play and can complement each other. The defensive solidity centred around New Zealander skipper Paul Cunningham provides the Tigers with a sense of security at the back.
The departure of last season's club top scorer Qiu Li has left a gap up front, despite the retention of the supporting cast of Kim Min Ho, Ruhaizad Ismail and Zulkiffli Hassim. The China-born forward's incisive runs and intelligence in the final third will be sorely missed.
Also, a potential internal 'us vs them' conflict could arise if Kraljevic is unable to gel the newcomers with the existing players, many whom retain fierce personal loyalties to Stewart.
Did you know?
Marko Kraljevic is the fourth former Balestier player to coach the club in the S.League era. The previous three were Abdullah Noor (2005), Nasaruddin Jalil (2008 - 2010) and Darren Stewart (2012 - 2013).
The Boss - Marko Kraljevic
The 48-year-old Croatian is taking up his first senior coaching post, having previously held youth coaching positions at his present club and at Woodlands Wellington.
A much-feared attacking midfielder in his playing days in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, the Singapore permanent resident has retained his penchant for attacking football, advocating teams to play with freedom and take risks in the final third.
His prior background in grooming young talent will put him at good stead as the club management will be turning to him to push the likes of Tajeli Salamat and Hanafi Akbar towards first-team breakthroughs this season.
Players to Watch
- Paul Cunningham
The 27-year-old New Zealander has been a rock at the heart of the Balestier defence for the past four seasons and the club will be turning to their skipper to chip in defensively again.
His sound reading of the game and uncompromising tackles make the centre-back one of the most feared defenders in the league. He has also developed a knack of causing terror at the other end, particularly in attacking set plays where his height is advantageous in winning headers or netting the odd game-turning goal on occasion.
- Park Kang Jin
The 25-year-old South Korean is a tireless worker in central midfield who is equally adept at shielding the back four and supplying passes for his colleagues up front. His high work rate as the link man between defence and attack will be essential to Balestier's hopes of achieving a respectable placing in the league this season.
- Goran Ljubojevic
Signed as the club's first marquee player, the 30-year-old forward is highly expected to deliver the goods in front of goal, having had prior experience in several top-tier leagues across Europe.
It remains to be seen whether the former Croatia Under-21 international can rediscover his prolific touch in his second Asian stint after a knee injury midway through his career affected his form.
Gary's 2014 season prediction: 9th