League Cup: Tigers and Rams glad to get games
Photography by Aundry Gan
As the StarHub League Cup begins to progress into the semifinals stage following the completion of the quarterfinals, the story for some teams who have not featured in those matches is not finished just yet.
For Balestier Khalsa, Woodlands Wellington and two other teams, there is a unique chance at reprieve with this year’s initiative to bring in the Plate competition.
These teams will be involved in a four-way fight for a trophy where the winner could pocket a handy S$5,000, a sum not to be scoffed at.
To be sure, a new idea will always bring out differing opinions in different sets of people.
But the two coaches who will occupy opposing benches at Toa Payoh Stadium come Monday evening agreed on their main motivations for playing in the Plate semifinals tie – more game time to build fitness and morale for the upcoming league games.
“It’s good to have this, especially for teams who miss out (on qualifying),” noted Balestier coach Darren Stewart.
“I’m not putting the Cup down, this tie isn’t going to mean a lot, but it’s at least good to be playing games and building for the upcoming league games.
“Getting to play on Friday (in the Plate Final) is a motivating factor, the desire to play another game more than the desire to win something.”
Woodlands assistant coach Clement Teo expressed generally similar sentiments.
“The Plate competition gives teams something to look forward to, other than the ‘okay, that’s it, finished’ mentality after they fail to qualify,” he observed.
“It’s good for us, especially when we have to wait till the next league game, which is some time away. It’s not easy to arrange friendly games during this period of the season, so it’s good to be able to keep playing.”
While the simple chance to keep themselves limber is certainly a delight for both sides, Balestier are still trying to come to terms with their early exit from the main competition.
Being grouped with recently-dethroned League Cup champions Albirex Niigata (Singapore) and league cellar dwellers Geylang United, the Tigers were widely expected to get through, but two successive defeats against the duo entrenched them to the foot of the table.
“We’re all still disappointed that we didn’t get through,” acknowledged Stewart.
“We definitely didn’t deserve to lose against Albirex. They scored two outstanding goals and that’s all.
“However, we can have no excuses in the last game against Geylang. The effort was there but the performance wasn’t; we were totally outplayed that day.”
The dip in team morale that came as a consequence of those results has left the Australian with a big frown on his forehead, going into matchday itself.
“You know, this is like we’re playing in the loser pool,” he pointed out.
“Mentally it’s the hardest thing (to adjust to), and there’s a desire to get their morale up. I have to instill the mentality back in the players, which is not easy considering it’s not such a big game, but I have total trust in my players.”
For the Rams, the mood has been slightly chirpier after holding Gombak United to a score draw last Tuesday.
It was ultimately not enough for them to qualify for the knockout stages following a 1-3 loss to Tampines Rovers in their first group match, but a much-improved performance has brought newfound belief in the squad to stop a long winless streak, stretching back to early March.
“We did well against Gombak but were unfortunate not to win,” shared Teo.
“However, we’re not complaining, we’ll only get better. So far the boys are doing fine in training and looking forward to the match.
“We’re definitely trying to make the final,” he then declared, before discussing the challenge involved.
“Naturally, after Balestier’s two losses, they will definitely be out to make a comeback, and that’s something we’re rather afraid of. It’s a tough game, but it’s also a one-off, so we also have to go all-out, just like how we go into every game trying to win.”
Despite already recording two identical 0-2 defeats in the league against the Tigers so far, Teo felt the third encounter may not end the same way.
“Maybe we’ll be third time lucky?” he mused.
Perhaps his team can capitalise on the absence of one half of Balestier’s regular backline.
Leftback Syed Thaha is suspended after picking up yellow cards in both group games, while lynchpin Goran Subara is ruled out with a knee injury.
Subara’s exclusion clears the way for Kim Min Ho to fill the team’s foreigner quota, but Stewart indicated hesitation in using the Korean hitman, with defence a potential priority.
Along with versatile forward Andrew Tan, Kim was involved in a Prime League encounter two days ago on a wet Toa Payoh pitch that ‘took a lot out of the lads’, so the 20-year-old could find himself starting on the bench.
Second-choice custodian Zakariah Nerani looks set to start his third game in a row, but Stewart preferred to keep his options open regarding recalling Joey Sim or even activating long-serving youngster Daniel Ong.
“I have three excellent goalkeepers,” he said, showing a hint of pride.
“However, goalkeeping coach Matthew Greatorex will have the key influence over who’s playing. That’s his area, and he knows them better than me.”
Interestingly, the Rams have been fielding Ang Bang Heng in place of first-choice custodian Ahmadulhad Che Omar in their League Cup campaign so far, and the one-time Balestier man will start for the third game running on Monday.
“It’s something we have discussed (with the management team); we all feel that Ang should be given a chance, so we will not change the goalkeeper,” confirmed Teo.
But Teo and his head coach Salim Moin will have to make do without a key member of their back four again, with Fabien Lewis only returning in September after recently completing surgery on a troublesome hernia.
Meanwhile, utility midfielder Aloysius Yap is likely to make way for hard man Armanizam Dolah as the former has study commitments.