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League Cup: Bacina eyes win at Choa Chu Kang

Paul Green

Hougang coach Nenad Bacina with assistant Hyrizan Jufri
Photography by Aundry Gan

The first of the quarterfinals in the newly-structured StarHub League Cup of 2012 gets underway at Choa Chu Kang Stadium on Saturday evening.

Group A winners SAFFC meet the runners-up in Group C, Hougang United, for a place in Tuesday’s semifinals clash at Jalan Besar Stadium, where the victors here will meet the successful side in the other quarterfinals matched staged the same day between Home United and DPMM FC of Brunei.

Under the rules of the competition, and largely due to the unusually late 8.30pm start, if the game is not decided over 90 minutes, it will move immediately to kicks from the penalty mark to decide the outcome.

SAFFC so far have enjoyed an unblemished record with two wins and two clean sheets, while Hougang lost their last match to Home 0-2, after beating the Courts Young Lions 2-1 prior to that.

In going down to the Protectors Hougang gave many of their fringe players a chance, and they gave a good account of themselves, according to Cheetahs coach Nenad Bacina.

“We had a few players who needed a rest, and as I am always saying we are not a team of eleven players,” he noted on Friday evening, ahead of a light recovery session at Hougang Stadium.

“Every one of my fairly large squad is considered a first-team member, whether they take the field or not.

“We lost our centreback Stanislav Vidakovic three games ago to a right knee injury, as he had to come off after 34 minutes of that S.League match against Home United and then missed the two League Cup games as well.

“He came out of hospital yesterday after having an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) operation. He was there for two days and is now recovering, but we won’t see him again this season.

“Fortunately we have good cover for Vida. Syaqir Sulaiman filled in for him and is doing the job well.”

Other than Vidakovic, though, Bacina has other concerns all across the field, after what has been a gruelling week so far.

“A few of our other players are carrying knocks from the Home United game, and Sobrie Mazelan had a bout of flu as well,” he confided.

“I’m not sure yet who will be fit enough, or well enough, to play on Saturday night. Three players are in doubt at the moment other than Sobrie, but I won’t know if they are ready until the day of the game.

“We can’t train much between games as there is so little time, and it’s a matter of recovery only, really, during this competition.

“Of course we will try and field our strongest team on Saturday to make amends for the last time we met them at Choa Chu Kang earlier in the season, when we lost 0-1 there.”

On that occasion in April, it took until 81 minutes into the game for Mislav Karoglan to split the two teams, the Croatian striker already well-known to the coach he was facing, who is Croatian himself.

Bacina is of course no stranger to the Choa Chu Kang faithful, having played for them as a defensive stalwart, but he will be putting those sentiments aside for as long as the match runs – though not after that.

“We want to go to the semifinals,” he declared.

“If we need to win on penalties we’ll be prepared for that, as we will be practising them at training for sure, even though we don’t like this way of settling matches.

“I have a lot of friends at SAFFC, as I was there for five years as a player, and three as the captain. It’s always nice to go there and beat them, but we will still be friends when the game is over, naturally.”

There is enough quality in the Hougang side to worry the Warriors, with Mamadou Diallo finding some form at last, at least in terms of getting his name on the scoresheet.

The Guinean’s coach has always been happy with his efforts, even though his majestic run of goalscoring during the team’s pre-season period was not replicated in the Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League campaign itself.

Diallo grabbed the equaliser that earned his side a 1-1 draw at Bishan Stadium in the same game where Vidakovic was carried off injured in the first half, but at least he has added to that with the Cheetahs’ first goal in the League Cup when they beat the Young Lions.

Otherwise the scoring has been mostly left to Canadian Jordan Webb, operating from a wide midfield position, while Diallo has done the bulk of the bullocking up front.

He may end up doing much the same at Choa Chu Kang, but that may well be enough to unnerve Richard Bok and his SAFFC charges.

Having celebrated turning 43 on Friday, Bok finds himself having little time to indulge in merriment as he and his charges chase after the one trophy SAFFC have never won.

In order to win the League Cup, teams have to beat top-flight contenders over a short timeframe, unlike the RHB Singapore Cup, which is spread over much of the season.

Should the Warriors win this they may find themselves playing DPMM a second time in the same competition, and while the previous encounter did not have that much weighing on it, the semifinals would be a different proposition altogether.

But the alternative would see them facing Home, and having been unbeaten against that side all season so far, would they fancy their chances of extending that run for one more game, or would they be concerned that the Protectors might have their turn come at last?

All that is speculation, of course, and the Warriors have to overcome Hougang first, far from a straightforward matter in itself.

Bok has to decide if he would retain unbeaten goalkeeper Rezal Hassan, who had been given two matches in order to gain match fitness and kept his side in the game against DPMM with some superb late saves.

Apart from Shahril Jantan, who made way for Rezal, other players have been rested in those first two matches against Tanjong Pagar and DPMM, such as striker Mislav Karoglan and Tatsuro Inui.

Marin Jonjic played both games as one of the foreign contingent, and the Croatian winger’s form would have been such that Bok might be tempted to retain him at the expense of one of the other four.

One local who is unlikely to be seen for some time is wingback Zulfadli Zainal Abidin, who picked up a knee injury against the Wasps and will need a scan to establish if it is a repeat of the knee ligament problem that had laid him low two years back.

Selection headaches abound then for Bok, who has Eddie Chang to consider for a defensive berth, though the youngster is still recovering from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident and is not yet 100 percent fit.

A few more of the young brigade, like Prakash Manikam and Matthew Abraham, may be given some time off the bench on Saturday if tactical considerations allow it.

  • League Cup
  • Hougang United