League Cup: Tan wants early resolution
Photography by Aundry Gan
Wednesday evening’s StarHub League Cup semifinals clash at Jalan Besar Stadium brings together two form teams in the form of Geylang United and Tampines Rovers.
In seasons past, such a match would have been described as an ‘eastern derby’, and in many people’s eyes this may still be the case, even if Tampines are temporarily residing along the western coast of Singapore.
Traditionally stronger in the business end of the season, the Stags came through a very tough quarterfinals tie against Albirex Niigata (Singapore) on Sunday night, emerging the victors only after an exhausting period of extra time and ultimately the lottery of the penalty shootout.
Their coach Steven Tan will not want to endure that all over again when his charges meet Geylang in this penultimate hurdle on the way to Saturday’s showpiece.
“We don’t want extra time, we want to get some early goals to make life less stressful for ourselves this time!” he confided.
“But Geylang won’t be easy opponents, by any means. They will have had more rest than my players, and that could be a big advantage.
“My players had the day off on Monday, which means we only meet again this evening to do some recovery work and assess the fitness of the players.”
Tan said this late on Tuesday afternoon, promising an update later after the evening’s training, but had already decided to start striker Noh Alam Shah, who was introduced off the bench against Albirex on Sunday and proved of tremendous value in the team’s comeback near the end.
“Alam Shah will start, and so will Aleks (Duric) and (Sead) Hadzibulic,” he said, making it clear that he would be trying to extract maximum leverage from his talented attacking triumvirate in the early stages of Wednesday’s match.
At this stage there are some concerns about the fitness of a few players, and even after Tuesday’s training, doubts may remain ahead of the game the following day.
The primary one revolves around Singapore international Fahrudin Mustafic, whom Tan later confirmed will need a late fitness assessment, but the defensive midfielder, who can also play in the backline, is made of stern stuff and will certainly want to play in any case.
That gives Tan enough to think about without even casting his eyes on the opposition, but he generously did so all the same.
“Geylang will be on a high after their recent results and will be full of confidence,” Tan said.
“It should be a very good game, and we are definitely looking forward to it.
“We just have to be careful against them and also be patient. They will have their own game plan, just as we have ours.
“Kanan (Vedhamuthu) has done a good job with them, moulding them as a unit, and they are defending well against quality opposition, it would seem. I’ve seen them play and they are playing with a lot of confidence now.”
The very man Tan praised may well agree with those sentiments.
“We are quite happy to be the underdogs going into this game, but my players are not afraid of playing Tampines,” remarked the former national athlete.
“They are the deserved favourites and we must respect them. But we managed to beat Albirex, and I saw Tampines struggle to beat Gombak (United), whom we ourselves managed to beat, so why should we fear them?
“I promised our reserve goalkeeper Ridhuan Barudin that I would play him in all of the League Cup games as long as he did well, and I have no reason to go back on my word. He is in good form so far, after not playing one match for us until the start of this competition.
“He’ll keep the job, and so will a few of the Prime League boys who stepped up.”
One Prime League player who will probably not expect to feature is Thai Panuwat Hengthaveephokasub, who has previous ties with Tampines as well.
Panuwat had been drafted into the squad earlier in the League Cup campaign, at the expense of Korean forward Mun Seung Man, but Kanan explained the reasons behind the latter’s absence.
“I did not have Mun available for the first couple of games as he had an eye infection, a case of red eye, and I did not want to rush him back,” he revealed.
“But I was able to play him in the last game and he scored the winner for us.
“I’ll keep him on the bench against Tampines so he is fresh, and it may be that Tampines will be getting tired towards the end.
“They have had to play extra time and penalties in their last match, and we have won all three of our games in 90 minutes, so we could have a slight edge in fitness there.
“The players all trained well on Tuesday evening at Bedok Stadium, and even Amy (Recha Samion), who was injured in a Prime League match last weekend, trained okay. I usually keep him in reserve, so it’s good to know I can use him again as he is showing me enough fitness.
“Tampines have the experience, especially in big matches, but we are playing very well at the moment and everyone is working well together. And of course we’d like to win the League Cup to make up for a poor couple of seasons in the S.League.”
It was not the first time Kanan has spoken of winning the League Cup, having reiterated that, as winners of the inaugural S.League competition in 1996 and one of Singapore’s most famous football institutions before that, being last in the table was not good for morale.
But with the team now just two games away from glory, the vibes from Bedok would seem much better.
“The team’s coming together nicely now,” he noted.
“Every one of our foreigners is playing to their full potential, and the locals are really blending well now with them and getting a lot of benefit from playing alongside those talented players.
“The defence has also grown in confidence, with Ridhuan looking very safe in dealing with high balls, especially.
“We know Tampines will throw Alam Shah, Duric and Hadzibulic at us, but we managed to stop Albirex, who play the ball around at will, and we see no reason why we can’t do the same against Tampines.”
With Kanan happy to have come this far in the competition to silence critics who wrote off his team’s chances in this competition and in the remainder of the S.League season, the stage is set for another epic on Wednesday.
Tampines, who came through a nail-biter of a game against Albirex only three days earlier, would prefer to have it all wrapped up inside 90 minutes. So would Geylang, no doubt, but they will be ready if it goes that little bit longer.