League Cup: No pressure but Home still hungry
Tam Cheong Yan
Photography by Aundry Gan
The pressure to qualify no longer exists for both Hougang United and Home United, after they had done their bit to relegate the Courts Young Lions to a place in the second-tier plate series of the StarHub League Cup.
Nor do both teams feel there is any strategic advantage to finishing either first or second in Group C, as SAFFC and DPMM FC, the two sides they could face in the quarterfinals, offer similarly tough challenges.
So what is left for the two sides when they head to Hougang Stadium on Wednesday evening is a game of football, pure and simple.
It is a game, though, that the Protectors very much want to win, even if it is a matter of winning for winning’s sake.
“Nothing changes for us; since we don’t need to think about getting through, we can focus on the game tomorrow,” noted Home assistant coach Baek Jong Seok, following the conclusion of team training at Bishan on the eve of the match.
“Everybody is eager to win every game, and everybody is ready to focus fully on the game. We’ll just keep going with the same players, the same performance, the same formation.
“Every team should focus on every game, and as a professional, every player should want to win any game, even when there is no pressure. I think Hougang will think the same way – no one should want to think about losing.
“Besides, winning the next match tomorrow will be good for us in terms of morale when we go to the quarterfinals, rather than losing or getting a draw. We will have more confidence that way.”
Home currently stand second in the group, as they are level on points and goal difference with Hougang, but have scored one to the Cheetahs’ two so far.
Victory on Wednesday would therefore push the Protectors into top spot, while a draw certainly keeps them second and leaves them playing away from their Bishan base for the quarterfinals.
But that makes little difference, and the same is true when it comes to assessing the possible opponents they would face on Saturday.
Home have never beaten SAFFC this year and have never lost to DPMM – yet Baek maintained that he was in agreement with his head coach Lee Lim Saeng in seeing no advantage either way.
“If you look at results so far, people may say getting the Bruneian team is better for us,” acknowledged the Korean.
“Yes, the fact is that we beat them twice. But for me, both teams have similar levels of quality.
“We don’t care about their differences, and there is no need to care. We just want to concentrate on playing a good game tomorrow first, and hopefully winning it.
“The good news is that Lionel (Lewis) is back, as people saw in the last game, and (Frederic) Mendy will be back tomorrow. (Shotaro) Ihata needed some ice after training because he felt a small strain, but he should be able to play too.”
Cheetahs coach Nenad Bacina expressed essentially similar sentiments when he spoke with sleague.com, although he noted that the compressed schedule faced by his team could lead to fresh faces turning up in the first eleven on Wednesday.
Mercurial talisman Jordan Webb has completed a suspension carried over from 2011 and is likely to start, while Hasree Zais should continue to cover for the injured Stanislav Vidakovic at centreback.
Fazly Hasan’s recent good form means there is no hurry to reintroduce Faizal Amir, and Ridhwan Osman could find himself similarly staying behind Azhar Sairudin in the pecking order.
That is not a given, though, as Bacina indicated that he would not be obsessing himself with the possibilities in the quarterfinals.
“I don’t want to calculate in this way,” he remarked.
“Whether we’re going to meet SAFFC or DPMM, we don’t want to calculate too much, since both are tough teams to meet. We will simply try our best when we play against Home United.
“Definitely we will try to rotate players, because the game comes three days after the last one, and the quarterfinals come another three days after that. We will try to put some fresh players in against Home United, and no matter who’s picked, they have to do their jobs.
“Of course, if we get a chance to be top of the group, that’s quite okay for us. But for us, the important thing is that we are already through.”
Bacina went on to speak about the importance of giving his less-used players time to play in recent games, as he has been doing lately with Fazly and Hasree.
Stressing that he did not see them as ‘fringe players’, he was nonetheless keen to highlight the long-term benefits of giving them exposure instead of keeping them on the bench all the time.
“Sometimes, even when we play lower-tier clubs in friendly matches, I ask the players to take these games very seriously,” said the Croat, who turned 41 recently.
“This is even more so in official matches like the League Cup, where people are hungry to go as far as possible. I’m trying to help players to realise how important it is to play every game at a high level, because the performance and effort levels have to keep going up.
“For me, every game is tough, whether it’s a league game or the League Cup final, and I want to develop players into taking the same approach. You watch the big teams from England or Spain when they come to Southeast Asia on tour; they approach even these games the professional way.
“That’s what I’m trying to bring to Hougang. So far, especially in the second round, they are responding very well to that.”