League Cup: Bok counting on fresh legs
Photography by Aundry Gan
The nature of the StarHub League Cup 2012 is such that the two teams that eventually reach the final will have played five matches over the 15-day duration of the tournament, for an average of one match every three days.
At the semifinals stage, this gruelling pace of matches will certainly begin to take its toll on teams remaining in the competition, especially when these teams need extra time or even penalties to advance.
The freshness of the players taking the field is definitely one key concern on the mind of Richard Bok, head coach of SAFFC, as he prepares his side to face Bruneian outfit DPMM FC at Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday evening for a place in the 11 August final.
The three-time MIKASA Coach of the Year had the foresight to rest a number of usual starters in the initial stages of the competition, opting to use fresher alternatives instead to negotiate the group stage and the quarterfinals.
Players like Eddie Chang, Marin Jonjic, Erwan Gunawan, Ruzaini Zainal and even 37-year-old goalkeeper Rezal Hassan certainly rose to the occasion when called upon, playing crucial roles in bringing the Warriors to the last four.
They started off their campaign with a big win over Tanjong Pagar United, before a morale-boosting result against DPMM at Yishun last week made them the team to beat in the competition.
Hougang United proved to be stiffer opposition, however, and it took a solitary Shimpei Sakurada goal in injury time to down the Cheetahs in the quarterfinals.
By that time Tatsuro Inui had already had his one game’s worth of rest in the group stage, Fazrul Nawaz had been thrown on as a late substitute in the quarterfinals, and even regular custodian Shahril Jantan was back in action.
Now that the Warriors are back in the semifinals, Bok has the chance to let his rotation policy reap some important dividends.
“The whole team’s done well to bring us to this stage,” said the 43-year-old.
“It is a long tournament, and towards the latter stages of the tournament, hopefully we can have some fresh legs to play on the field. Hopefully it will pay off.
“We’ve been doing quite well, so we want to maintain what we have been doing, which is playing good exciting football.”
While many of SAFFC’s big guns have already clocked a minimum of one full League Cup game under their belts, a trump card that Bok has not used so far is top marksman Mislav Karoglan.
Last season’s golden boot winner did not lace his boots at all for the last three matches, as fellow Croat Jonjic has been given the chance to star in his place.
However, with Jonjic doubtful for the semifinals after picking up an injury against the Cheetahs, the man affection known among teammates as ‘Kari’ may well be called into action once again.
His is certainly one fresh pair of legs Bok would appreciate on the field.
20-year-old Jonjic is not the only one who may miss out this time. Veteran centreback Bah Mamadou is out injured, while wingback Ruzaini Zainal is rated as ‘doubtful’.
The biggest concern, though, is first-choice leftback Zulfadli Zainal Abidin, who sustained an awkward knee injury the last time SAFFC met the Wasps six days earlier.
On that occasion, the Warriors ran out 2-0 winners after Fazrul put in a starring attacking performance, scoring the opening goal in the first half before he fed Aliff Shafaein to settle things towards the end.
Veteran custodian Rezal took the headlines that day, however, for his presence between the posts made all the difference as he prevented multiple attempts from the DPMM attackers from entering his goal.
The former Tiger Cup winner was informally declared Man of the Match by both coaches for his excellent display, though in the case of DPMM coach Vjeran Simunic the compliment was surely tinged with bitter regret.
Bok acknowledged revenge will be firmly on the minds of the Bruneians after that setback, but he was of the belief his side will be ready for them.
“It is going to be a tough game,” he said.
“They will be aggressive, and they will try to get back at us. We will have to stay disciplined and keep our composure to control the game.
“Both teams like to play good attacking football, and it will be a close match. We just have to slowly probe for a chance and take it to get the result we want.
“I will be assessing the players to see which ones are most fresh and ready to play this match.”
Bok may be heartened by the knowledge that DPMM qualified for the semifinals the hard way, needing a late equaliser from defender Tales dos Santos and the lottery of the penalty shootout to beat Home United.
Home looked to be cruising to a date with the Warriors after Indra Sahdan Daud’s goal three minutes after the break, but dos Santos trashed the script with his late goal, and after a goalless period of extra time, two saves by Wardun Yussof put the Wasps through to the last four.
The exhaustion that came from the exercise has its costs, though, with Simunic claiming that Sallehuddin Damit, the oldest man in his squad at age 38, will be out for two months following a collision with a teammate late into the match.
There are also questions over the sharpness of players like Shahrazen Said and Basiru Osman, who have not been that impressive in the Bruneian outfit’s League Cup run so far, although they could well be saving their batteries for this push towards the final.
SAFFC have not made it into the last four of a cup competition since 2009, when they were defeated by DPMM in the final of the League Cup on penalties.
2010 saw them crash out of the RHB Singapore Cup at the first hurdle and fall to Sengkang Punggol in the League Cup quarterfinals, while in 2011 they dropped out of both competitions at the quarterfinals stage.
This year, they are two matches away from ending a three-season silverware drought, and may even be on course for a cup double, having stormed into the RHB Singapore Cup semifinals.
But Bok and his charges are well-drilled in the art of taking one competition at a time – and having beaten their opponents for the evening once in the past week already, all they have to do is overcome their not-so-tired legs and repeat that feat to move one step closer to a trophy.