Kraljevic: Zaiful deserves a national team call-up

Balestier Khalsa coach Marko Kraljevic and captain Zaiful Nizam were in high spirits on Wednesday night, after the Tigers achieved a maiden AFC Cup win against Kingfisher East Bengal.

Having lost their first two Group F matches, reigning RHB Singapore Cup champions Balestier bounced back in fine fashion as they stunned India’s East Bengal FC 2-1 at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday night.

Speaking at the post-match press conference, Kraljevic lauded the impressive showing which his charges put up against last season’s I-League runners-up. 

“It’s all about the teamwork tonight,” he said.

“Zaiful was the man of the match and he helped us secure the three points, but overall the whole team worked very hard.

“In the first 25 minutes, we played very well; we had a lot of space and could have scored some more goals to finish the game but after that we slowed down. In the second half, the opponents pressured, closed us down and did not allow us to play.

“Towards the end, we lost a bit of focus which their guy put the ball into the net but all in all, it was a sweet win.”

Goalkeeper and captain Zaiful stood firm in the second half to repel the waves of East Bengal attacks, with a superb point-blank save to tip over substitute Sukhwinder Singh’s effort being the best of the lot.

Kraljevic believes the 27-year-old is due a national team call-up in the near future if he keeps up his spectacular form over the past couple of years. 

“I think he deserves to be in the national team,” the Balestier coach said.

“I don’t know why he’s not there but it’s all down to the coach. His performances are getting better on a year-by-year basis and he should at least get a call-up.

“Maybe that’s the reason why he has been pushing himself because he wants to show everyone why he should be there.”

Man-of-the-match Zaiful sustained a thigh injury in the first half, which affected his kicking, but played through the pain barrier to complete the game.

However he preferred to give credit to his teammates for this historic victory.

“Every game if I get the chance to play, I will push on even if I’ve an injury,” he said.

“If the coach puts you to play, it means he believes in you so you have to do your best.

“For me, doing something extra to help the team is a bonus and I have to say well done to all the coaches and teammates for working so hard.”

With this victory, the Tigers lifted themselves into third place in Group F, three points behind Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) and four behind leaders Kitchee SC.

Zaiful is proud to see how his side have progressed since the first game and believes they still have every chance of progressing beyond the group stages.

“I think no one really believe in us because we are the underdogs,” said the goalkeeper, who has been with the club since 2013.

“But slowly things are coming together for us; in the first game against Kitchee, we were not settled down yet and we lost 3-0; in the second game against JDT, we defended well and only conceded in the 93rd minute; in this game we managed to get all three points.

“There’s another three games to go and anything can still happen. We don’t know if we can make it to the second round but at least we give a good fight and try to catch up on the points.

“I believe in something called luck and if we keep doing what’re doing and follow the plan, maybe we can still qualify.”

Photo: S.League