League Cup: Soaring Eagles ascend to final
Photography by Ming Ham
Geylang United continued their fairytale run in the StarHub League Cup competition when they stunned Tampines Rovers 2-0 in the second semifinals clash played on the eve of National Day at Jalan Besar Stadium.
Late goals in each half from imports Jozef Kaplan and Stefan Milojevic, both coming against the run of play, sealed their place in Saturday’s final against Bruneian outfit DPMM FC, which will be held at the same venue.
With the latest cup upset, the present league cellar dwellers have capped an impressive unbeaten run of form in this tournament as they move another step closer to clinching the only local silverware that has eluded them thus far.
Eagles head coach Kanan Vedhamuthu kept faith with the core of the team that had performed well in this tournament. Goalkeeper Ridhuan Barudin stayed between the posts, while youngsters Fabian Kwok and Nurhazwan Norasikin continued their runs as starters.
Tampines counterpart Steven Tan named Noh Alam Shah on the bench after the latter reported a bout of fever on the eve of the game, while French sweeper Benoit Croissant was leashed on the bench for the fourth successive game.
The Stags had the attacking initiative in the early stages of the contest, as they launched waves of long-range efforts from outside the box to test any signs of uneasiness in the Eagles defence.
But without any effort troubling Ridhuan, who has had a remarkable League Cup, conceding only one goal in four matches, Geylang soon applied the brakes on the reigning league champions’ initiatives and began exerting pressure of their own through counters.
On the few occasions they ventured into the Tampines box in the first half, it was only a lack of a concrete final touch that eluded them from taking the lead against the run of play.
Ridhuan was the busier of the two goalkeepers that evening as he dealt with everything the men in blue had to throw at him, including a direct free kick from Fahrudin Mustafic that hit the post seven minutes before the break.
The Stags’ inability to pierce through Geylang’s defence despite their dominance was to prove costly as the underdogs took the lead just before injury time arrived.
A through pass from Frenchman Stefan Milojevic found Kaplan, who took on Tampines centreback Anaz Hadee before slotting the ball home past Sasa Dreven.
The stunning development only served to raise the Stags’ attacking tempo as they pushed further forward in pursuit of the equaliser in the second half.
Veteran striker Aleksandar Duric came agonisingly close seven minutes after the restart, as he brushed a Geylang marker off but contrived to blast the ball well over with a gaping goalmouth in front of him.
The Bedok-based outfit came close to doubling their lead just before the hour mark when they exploited botched half-clearances inside the Tampines area, only for the final effort from English attacker Michael King to whizz just wide.
A good attacking interplay on the right between Nurhazwan and King sent the latter through on the left and force Dreven into a fine save after 65 minutes.
For all their lion’s share of possession and overall play, Tampines were particularly found wanting in the final third, where more often than not they were let down by the final ball needed for a breakthrough.
That was best exemplified by Jamil Ali when he was set up by Ahmad Latiff Khamarudin off a quickly-taken free kick. With Ridhuan beaten and an empty goal in front of him, he followed his skipper’s example instead and sent the ball well over from a few yards out.
The Geylang goalmouth continued to lead a charmed life 15 minutes before the final whistle when Jalal cleared a goalbound grounder off the line to preserve the advantage.
A one-goal lead became a two-goal cushion seven minutes from the end when Ang Zhi Wei’s long low pass sent Milojevic clear onside from the left.
The mid-season signing raced into the box and placed his shot into the far side of goal to seal Geylang’s place in Saturday’s final.
Tan later lamented the exhausting exertions his players had in this cup campaign, particularly the quarterfinals clash against Albirex Niigata (Singapore) that contributed to their downfall in the final four.
“The players are clearly very disappointed with the result,” said the former Singapore international.
“The Albirex match (that went all the way through extra time and into penalties in the quarterfinals) took a massive toll on us, as we were tired.
“We were second best on our second balls, and Geylang knew as long as we didn’t score, they could kill us with their soak-and-counter strategy. If we had scored first with our chances we had, it would have been a different game altogether.”
His Geylang counterpart Kanan was ecstatic to see his team continually perform their miraculous run in the Cup that belied their woeful domestic season with another scalp in the cap.
“We are definitely the best team in the League Cup,” he said.
“We had the momentum and started well from the beginning of the tournament.
“We are the only unbeaten team in this tournament and do not see any games go into extra time and beyond. Not even Tampines nor DPMM can manage that.”
The rookie senior coach then went on to point out how he did his tactical homework against their semifinals opponents from start to finish.
“If you compare the statistics in the League Cup, we are definitely better than Tampines from the start,” he continued.
“We have only conceded one goal, while they have let in five. We collected maximum points in the group while they only had four.
“From what I saw in their game against Woodlands, they only beat them 3-1 using the direct ball approach.”
He went on to hail his heroes in their magical League Cup run and asserted his belief his team are now in prime position to be champions.
“The work I had started when I took over back in March is clearly paying off,” he smiled.
“This is the tournament where we can salvage our pride for the season.
“Players like Ridhuan and Jalal have stepped up and played well in this Cup, giving me options on who are in my plans for 2013.
“We countered their approach very well and I told the boys that I want the Tampines players to crack their heads on what they have to do in the second half, instead of us doing the thinking.
“We have excellent teamwork and scored fabulous goals. We have already taken down the top two in the league in this Cup and can take on any team!”