League Cup: High-flying Eagles surprise Kanan
Photography courtesy of Albirex Niigata (Singapore)
As the competition progresses into the knockout stages with fewer teams in the dogfight, naturally hopes and expectations go up a notch – and it is especially exciting for teams which can put aside league troubles to make decent cup runs.
Sunday evening’s StarHub League Cup quarterfinals clash provides two lower-placed teams the chance to make further progress and possibly take a step closer towards achieving some unlikely silverware.
Cellar-dwellers in the league, without a competitive win since April – the story of Geylang United in this competition so far is a refreshing one.
Being thrown into a group consisting of last season’s winners Albirex Niigata (Singapore) and a strong Balestier Khalsa outfit, not many keen S.League followers would have given the Eagles a chance to progress, let alone top the group.
However that was just what they have achieved, following successive wins over the duo, thus earning progress into the last eight as group winners.
This was a surprise not only to outsiders, but also to the Eagles personnel, including coach Kanan Vedhamuthu himself.
“It’s a big surprise that we managed to top the group,” he told sleague.com.
“My boys played two very good games. I didn’t expect a 3-1 win against Balestier, it was a bit flattering, I thought we will only draw or win by a goal at best!
“We showed very good teamwork against them, and that game gave us the confidence. But I knew Albirex next would be very tough – even more so than DPMM FC or Tampines Rovers.
“However, we played an excellent game (on Thursday). We played above our usual standards and lifted ourselves to the occasion; they hardly had chances, and we scored two good goals.”
“Now the boys are looking forward to the quarterfinals!”
Although taken aback by the way his charges have performed in the League Cup so far, Kanan was keen to reiterate that there was much hard work done behind the scenes to achieve all that.
“The team actually shaped up very well before I left for Japan,” he said, referring to a trip last month for an AFC coaching course.
“We had a good one-month mid-season break, where we worked a lot on fitness. Then I left for a period of three weeks, where we lost two games, including a very heavy defeat against Home United.
“I came back for the game against DPMM, but it was quite rushed. I reached Singapore on 19 July, had one training session the next day, and we played them on 21 July, so I could not do much.
“After that I started working on this League cup. I told them this was the only place left to salvage something for the club.”
Notably, Geylang have adopted a similar practice as several other clubs in this League Cup tournament, fielding a number of second-stringers for substantial spells.
Second-choice custodian Ridhuan Barudin was given the gloves ahead of the experienced Yazid Yasin, for starters, while Fabian Kwok and Shah Hirul, two players who have had little involvement with the team prior to June, have anchored the midfield admirably.
Kwok, who completes his National Service commitments later this month, was granted an early return to football by SAFSA, while Hirul is still regaining match fitness after missing the first half of the season due to injury.
Both have earned special praise from Kanan.
“So far the key to our success has been the two defensive midfielders in Fabian and Shah; they have been excellent and their work rate is 100 percent,” he mused.
Despite enjoying much success in the League Cup so far, Kanan acknowledged his charges can expect a tough battle when they host Gombak United at Bedok.
With a heavily revamped squad filled with exciting young talent as well as a number of experienced locals, the Bulls had been tipped as useful outsiders for a top-half slot, but so far results have been disappointing – four wins all season giving them tenth place in the league.
However, as shown in their RHB Singapore Cup campaign, where they toppled Hougang United to reach the last four, K. Balagumaran’s charges have a knack for turning on the touch when it comes to cup games.
“I think this match is a 50-50, anybody can win,” assessed Kanan.
“Gombak are a good team with a good backline, good foreigners, good forwards in (Jung Hee) Bong and Hafiz (Rahim). They also held Tampines, a team full of creators and game-winners.
“We played them twice at Bedok in the mid-season break, and we won both matches 1-0, plus we had two victories in the League Cup so far, so maybe Gombak will be wary of us. But we will do well not to be overconfident.”
Balagumaran meanwhile admitted the Eagles will be no easy meat either.
“Based on their two results, they look good, but I haven’t got the chance to see them play,” he admitted.
“I’m going to play the same way as how we played against Tampines. That day they did not play up to expectations, and we created chances but did not finish them off.
“In the end, though, a draw was a fair result, which was what we wanted – we just wanted to qualify.”
The former national youth coach admitted he had not counted on a trip to Bedok, expecting instead to reacquaint himself with Gombak’s near neighbours from Jurong East.
“I’m taking one game at a time for now; I was expecting to face Albirex but now we have Geylang!” he remarked.
“Some people tell me it’s better that way, but it won’t be easy. Every team will have their day, and Geylang are on a psychological high now, so I’m taking precautions.”
A tight Cup schedule – a game every three days – coupled with the Ramadan period means both sets of players, with so many Muslims among their ranks, have had it tough so far.
“It’s been a two-week period, where the players don’t have any day off,” lamented Balagumaran.
“Moreover the fasting month is taking a toll, especially when we don’t have a big squad like Tampines or SAFFC, so we have to careful on the players’ fitness.”
His side may miss Ismail Yunos, who has an ankle injury, and Mustaqim Manzur, who is still on a rehabilitation programme for a long-standing problem.
Kanan, on the other hand, was far chirpier on the state of his squad.
“It’s quite surprising that we’re not that tired after the Albirex match, as they’re a team who will make you run up and down,” noted the former national athlete.
“Nobody went down with cramps, and I decided to rest two foreigners (Stefan Milojevic and Michael King) after we went 2-0 up. We focused on recovery on Friday – checking on our food intake and going to the swimming pool.”
Kanan reported that club vice-captain Syed Fadhil has passed a fitness test and is expected to keep on donning the armband while regular skipper Yazid stays on the bench, while Jalal is expected to feature after recovering from a recent bout of diarrhoea.