League Cup: Tigers seeking confidence boost
Photography by Aundry Gan
Prize money and a first-ever trophy for the eventual winners should be enough for both Balestier Khalsa and the Courts Young Lions to play to their full potential in Friday evening’s StarHub Plate Final at Jalan Besar Stadium.
There have been many attempts to play down the significance of the event, appreciating it mostly for another chance for competitive action ahead of the return to the Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League games scheduled from 23 August.
But when the whistle blows, players from both teams are sure to find that extra adrenalin rush needed to spur them on.
S$5,000 in the purse and a plate trophy may not be ‘big bickies’ for some of the more ambitious clubs, but any prize is worth striving for, and after a run of poor results until their Monday triumph over Woodlands Wellington, Balestier will surely not want to slip into any bad habits again.
Tigers coach Darren Stewart was glad of another chance to have his team prepare for their return to league action on 23 August itself, without the worry of finding suitable opponents in friendlies before then.
And the Australian made it clear his players would be in full match-winning mood when taking the field on Friday.
“We always play with a winning mentality,” he said.
“The players will want to win, no matter how much prize money is at stake or how prestigious the trophy is for the club.
“I do feel a little embarrassed and guilty, to be honest though, at the thought of winning something, virtually for coming ninth of the 12 teams that took part in the League Cup when teams like Tampines (Rovers) and Albirex (Niigata (Singapore)) have been left with nothing after topping their groups.
“But those are the rules, I guess.”
While those questions of principle will be in Stewart’s mind even after this match is over, there are more immediate concerns.
Most significantly, the former Gombak United coach has to manage two key injuries in his defence that seem set to run well into November.
“I have a couple of players who won’t be ready to play, and others who are playing through the pain barrier,” he advised.
“Paul Cunningham has not trained for five weeks, for instance, and he will need an operation at the end of the season on his knee, but on medical advice we are managing his fitness and it helps that the final seven games are well spaced apart until November so that he can have plenty of rest.
“Goran Subara has another problem, with his knee this time, and that needs rest, too. Cunningham will play, though, as he can rest for two weeks after this match.
“I was pleased with the way Daniel Ong played in our last match and I’ll be using him in goal again tomorrow,” he continued.
“All of our keepers are good, and we play the man who is in the best form whenever we can. Daniel deserves to keep his place, even if he is normally our third choice in that position.
“We’ll be bringing Joey Sim back as soon as we move back into the S. League programme.”
Sim is included in the latest squad picked by national coach Raddy Avramovic for next Wednesday’s international friendly against Hong Kong, so he would be away anyway.
But there is still decent experience available for cover from the bench, in the form of Zakariah Nerani, whom Stewart had worked with at Gombak.
“After our very good pre-season form and the superb support we have received from the club management, who have given out monthly bonuses all year, we are still determined to go for the title, even if there’s a lot of ground to make up,” noted the 46-year-old.
“We virtually have to win all seven of our remaining matches and hope the rest slip up, but to some extent it’s in our own hands, as we still have to play the Harimau Muda (of Malaysia), SAFFC and DPMM from Brunei, and they are all rivals for the title, if not the top three.
“So Friday’s game is one we will aim to win, as gaining some extra confidence will be important for us in the run home.”
A similar desire to come out on top also runs in Young Lions coach Robin Chitrakar, who informed sleague.com that his young charges were very much looking forward to the match and were treating it as a thoroughly competitive fixture.
“We all want to win the Plate, and my boys are working hard to do that,” said the 35-year-old, who spoke on Thursday evening as darkness began to fall.
“We just finished training a short while ago. As our National Service boys are involved in the National Day Parade we didn’t see them today, but hopefully we will tomorrow.
“We won’t know who is available until they turn up tomorrow, but we should be able to put out a strong side.
“I think this competition is a good one for teams like us and I don’t know what Balestier feel about it, but we are very keen on winning it. As you know, us Young Lions have never won any silverware since coming into the S.League, and this is a great chance for the boys to make something happen.”
When the two sides met earlier in the season at Jalan Besar Stadium it finished all square at 1-1, Faris Ramli striking quickly for the hosts on that occasion to cancel out a late lead earned by Patrick Paranjody.
Incidentally, the Young Lions’ first game when league action resumes will come against Balestier as well, when they visit Toa Payoh Stadium on 31 August.
So Friday’s game can be seen as a ‘dress rehearsal’ for that important match, but for the Young Lions the Plate is the main event, by all accounts, of no lesser significance than the main domestic competition.
“Our main concern has been conceding early goals and having to come back,” Chitrakar observed.
“It’s happening too often for my liking, and there’s no excuse really, even with the fresh faces we may see from one game to the next.
“We have to be more focused and settle down sooner in the game, as it will be quite hard against Balestier if we do go a goal down, as they are a good defensive unit.”