League Cup: Zulkiffli goal extends Tigers workout
Ko Po Hui
Photography by Aundry Gan
It was meant to be a second lease of life, and it was one that Balestier Khalsa were only too happy to take.
Parachuted into the second-tier plate series of the StarHub League Cup tournament after losing both of their group games, the Tigers got their win on the third try, sinking Woodlands Wellington 1-0 at Toa Payoh Stadium on Monday evening.
The result gives them a chance to collect some silverware come the final on 10 August, although that hardly appeared to entice Balestier coach Darren Stewart, who simply focused on the fact his charges will now get to play another game before the domestic scene goes for a week-long recess.
“I’m happy that we’ve got another game to play now,” said the former Tigers skipper.
“In the first half we sat back, and in the second half we played all out and had a lot of chances to score goals. Unfortunately we couldn’t get more, but I’m pleased with the boys’ performance after how we trained and prepared for this game.
“We are not planning to win this Plate; like I said before, this just feels like a losers’ pool we’re in. We are actually planning to (use the games to) prepare for the league.
“The boys are just happy to have another game to prepare themselves for the last seven games in the league, without having to wait till 23 August for another game!”
Scoring the winner for the Tigers on this occasion was livewire Zulkiffli Hassim, who found himself perfectly placed to receive a pass from Montenegrin forward Zdravko Dragicevic on 66 minutes.
Zulkiffli proceeded to nudge his way past the hapless figure of Woodlands goalkeeper Ang Bang Heng and score the only goal of the evening, ensuring the 265 fans in the Toa Payoh stands were able to go home early.
The Rams were reduced to ten men just before the final whistle, when Han Yiguang was given his marching orders by referee Muhd Taqi for collecting his second yellow card of the evening.
Apart from the goal and the dismissal, the fans were rarely roused by the scrappy encounter played out before their eyes, as both teams often played hopeful long passes and goalmouth action was at a premium.
Balestier were the stronger of the two teams on the overall, doing particularly well to exploit the frail nature of their visitors’ left flank.
This was made obvious following the introduction of Prime League foreigner Kim Min Ho at the half-time break, the Korean replacing one-time Singapore international Patrick Paranjody and quickly showing bursts of pace to trouble Duncan David Elias.
Kim made his first surge past the former Sengkang Punggol man only three minutes into the second period, but inexperience got the better of the 20-year-old as he went for an ambitious attempt from just inside the box that bounced off Ang on the line.
Elias was consistently tormented by the Balestier attackers in the match, and another piece of error in judgment allowed Dragicevic to play a decent cross meant for Zulkiffli, who took a bit too long to secure control and gave the defenders enough time to regroup and stymie him.
At least Balestier had decent assaults to remember; for Woodlands, the outing was a frustrating one on the attacking front as Moon Soon Ho, Goh Swee Swee and Hussein Akil found it impossible to break through their opponents’ brick wall of a defence.
Things got so bad for the northerners that they resorted to taking long-range shots, and even then Daniel Ong, Stewart’s third-choice custodian, did not have much difficulty dealing with most of them.
The singular exception came when Goh struck a post 19 minutes from time, but by then Balestier were already ahead through Zulkiffli’s goal.
In the end, that lead stayed, and Woodlands saw the optimism that arose from their performance in the group stage fade once again.
Rams assistant coach Teo was blunt in his assessment of the goal that decided the game.
“It was very unfortunate,” he stated clearly.
“The keeper could have done better, maybe. But it all boils down not only to the goalkeeper himself, but to other players too and how it all started.”
Teo also defended the team’s long-shot tactics despite the fact that they failed to have an impact on the match.
“The whole idea to take shots from so far was because we felt their goalkeeper is not their first choice,” he observed.
“It was a gamble, we had to shoot if we want to win. And it’s all up to the individual.
“Sometime, when a player is 30 yards away and there’s someone running in from the back, he may choose not to pass and then scores one himself instead. When a guy scores like that, everyone says it’s a nice goal and forgets everything else, so that’s the name of the game.”
Despite the exit, Teo acknowledged that the League Cup campaign has offered some consolation to head coach Salim Moin and himself.
“We’ve had a number of players come up this season, especially in the League Cup,” he noted.
“You’ve got guys like Danny (Chew), who’s never even played in the (amateur) NFL. He’s only got social league experience, but you can see Balestier had a hard time going past him.
“Of course, it’s more about our growth as a team than the individuals. Overall, we are happy with the way the boys performed, and we are not that upset, other than those missed chances.
“Certain cases of decision-making (on the field) were not right, but this is football. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes.”