League Cup: Rotation dilemma for Gombak
Photography by Aundry Gan
Heading into the final matchday of the StarHub League Cup group stage, there is still one quarterfinals spot up for grabs as Gombak United host Tampines Rovers in the final Group D match at Jurong West Stadium on Thursday evening.
The group situation was made open on Monday after Woodlands Wellington captain Daniel Hammond secured a point and cancelled out the opening goal from Gombak’s Walid Lounis in their 1-1 draw at Woodlands Stadium.
Tampines are already through on the back of a 3-1 home win over Woodlands in their opening group match at Clementi last week, and they will only need a point to secure home advantage in the one-legged knockout round.
The situation is less clear-cut for the hosts though.
A draw is sufficient for them to advance, but should they finish second, a trip to either Jurong East or Bedok awaits them in the last eight.
If the RHB Singapore Cup semifinalists succumb by a worse score than what the Stags had dished out to the Rams, then Woodlands will qualify for the last eight instead, and Gombak will move on to face Balestier Khalsa in the plate series semifinals at Toa Payoh on 6 August.
Then, of course, there is the possibility that Gombak can win, which would naturally put them top of the group and push Tampines down to second.
It is the complexity of such permutations that leaves Bulls head coach K. Balagumaran with several selection headaches as he aims to emulate the club’s silverware success four years ago.
Balagumaran started what was almost an all-local team against the Rams, with Nigerian skipper Obadin Aikhena taking the field from start to finish.
Their remaining foreign contingent – Korean striker Jung Hee Bong, English midfielder Chris Anderson and French playmaker Julien Durand – came on as second-half substitutes.
With young attacking midfielder Iqbal Hamid Hussain suspended after collecting two yellow cards at Woodlands, the first-year senior coach is faced with a dilemma.
The choice is between aiming to attempt for qualification with his strongest squad and persisting with his rotation policy for the tournament.
The mix of youth and experience in a Gombak team in transition has presented the former national youth team coach with different options to field against Tampines, who are also likely to continue with their rotation system.
One foreigner who is unlikely to start, whatever choice Balagumaran makes, is Jung. The lanky Korean has been out of favour in recent matches and has consistently made bit-part appearances in games.
While his height is seen as an asset for shielding the ball, it is the failure of reproducing his scoring touch in the second half of last season that has seen him relegated to the bench.
Form is a concern for Balagumaran, but it is not an issue for his Tampines counterpart Steven Tan.
In-form Serbian striker Sead Hadzibulic, French defender Benoit Croissant and Singapore international midfielder Fahrudin Mustafic did not even need to come off the bench as the Stags coasted to a comfortable win in their opening pool game.
The three-time S.League champions are likely to persist with giving the likes of Ali Hudzaifi Yusof, Fazil Zailani and Ahmed Fahmie Jamil more game time in this competition.
Their head coach Tan has revealed this possibility following the victory last week, in light of a possible tight schedule in the business end of the event, when the League Cup is split into the main and Plate knockout rounds, starting this weekend.
“It’s good to let the other players play in the League Cup,” he said.
“Moreover, next week we have four games in one week, and it’s going to be very taxing. I think if all of them play on till the final, they will be ‘punctured’ already!”
Striker Noh Alam Shah is set to be given another chance to break his duck against the Bulls, following his mid-season loan move from Indonesian club Persib Bandung a few weeks ago.
Despite a productive evening moving around the pitch and being involved in several plays, the 31-year-old squandered a few opportunities to put his name on the scoresheet alongside strike partners Aleksandar Duric and Jamil Ali.
With Croissant unlikely to be risked, Ismadi Mukhtar is the man probable to step in for Anaz Hadee after the latter was stretchered off with a suspected ankle injury during the game at Clementi.
Woodlands will be privately hoping their dreams of a good cup run will not be dashed with a result that swings in Gombak’s favour.
The game will certainly produce mixed feelings for Salim Moin, who once coached Gombak, but the bigger headaches surely go to the man currently occupying that post as Balagumaran prepares to hold off the Stags and secure qualification.