Dominant Balestier Tame Listless Protectors
Created on Monday, 18 June 2012 13:43
A first-half goal from Zulkiffli Hassim earned three deserved points for Balestier Khalsa as Home United slumped to their worst performance of the season in their league match at Toa Payoh Stadium on Sunday evening.
Photography (left) by Aundry Gan
With Albirex Niigata (Singapore) earning a dramatic 4-3 victory away to Singapore Armed Forces FC at Choa Chu Kang in a concurrent fixture, the Tigers are now level with their opponents and the Japanese on 24 points, five behind league leaders DPMM FC of Brunei.
The home side made a few changes in their starting eleven as they aimed to pick up from a promising first half of their campaign, which has seen them emerge as dark horses for the league championship.
Utility player Goran Subara, who had sustained a hand injury in their last home win against Malaysia’s Harimau Muda, recovered ahead of schedule to resume his central defensive partnership with skipper Paul Cunningham.
Shafuan Sutohmoh, who moved from Gombak United in mid-season, slotted into a three-man central midfield alongside former Bulls teammates Park Kang Jin and Tengku Mushadad, while Zakariah Nerani was given the nod ahead of regular goalkeeper Joey Sim.
With Chang Jo Yoon no longer on the books of the Toa Payoh-based club, Kim Min Ho was elevated with the responsibility of leading the frontline with Zulkiffli and Hamqaamal Shah in support.
Meanwhile, Home were looking to revive their domestic campaign after completing their AFC Cup commitments last month with defeat in the octofinals against Syrian side Al-Shorta.
With skipper Shi Jiayi injured and French defender Franklin Anzite suspended, the Protectors went with a three-man defence comprising Nor Azli Yusoff, Kenji Arai and Sofiyan Abdul Hamid, with Jeremy Chiang and Rosman Sulaiman providing support as wingbacks.
The visitors’ tactical plans backfired as Balestier dominated the first 45 minutes. Zulkliffli in particular was a constant menace in attack with his determined runs on either side, leaving the white shirts floundering in confusion.
It was the 26-year-old who provided the game’s first serious attempt on goal after 14 minutes, when he launched a shot from a narrow angle that forced acting Home skipper Lionel Lewis to deflect the ball away for a corner.
With the hosts controlling possession and dictating the tempo of play, Zulkiffli would eventually get the service he needed to conjure the winner ten minutes later.
A quick counterattacking move found the lively winger on the right, and he sent in a ferocious shot just outside the box that bounced in off the far post to give the Tigers a lead they would never relinquish.
The stunned Protectors reverted to their usual four-man backline following the setback, but put together their first meaningful attempt on goal only after the half-hour mark with a 20-yard snap-shot from Qiu Li sailing over Zakariah’s goal.
Balestier came close to doubling the lead before the break when a Park corner found Subara at the far post, but the Australian’s header crashed against the woodwork.
Another close call came four minutes after the break when a Mushadad corner found Cunningham, whose header at the near post was desperately cleared off the line.
For all the Tigers’ dominance in set-pieces, they could not beat Lewis a second time as a tame effort from Kim at the far post, following a flick-on from Cunningham off another Mushadad corner, failed to trouble the shaky Protectors.
Singapore international Qiu provided the closest thing to a Home riposte on 65 minutes when his 20-yard direct free kick clipped the crossbar with Zakariah rooted on the line.
It was only when Balestier chose to ease their tempo and sit back for the final 15 minutes that the reigning RHB Singapore Cup champions had any momentum and fluency in their play.
Press as they did, they found the sea of red shirts impossible to break through, and a couple of their most dangerous set plays in the final moments of the game were cleared as Balestier hung on for three points.
Tigers captain Cunningham was understandably delighted with his team’s high work-rate as they renewed their statement of intent for a first league championship.
“It was a brilliant fighting performance from all of us here, and we fully deserved our win tonight,” beamed the New Zealander at the post-match interview.
“The team spirit was definitely strong, and we have players returning and arriving to give us the boost we need.”
The defender was particularly effusive on the return of his trusted sidekick Subara as they regained the defensive solidity that went missing in May.
“With Goran returning and performing as he did tonight, no one could tell that he did not play with us for the past month due to the injury he suffered,” he remarked.
“It is one thing to have someone whom I can communicate with during the game. I am very fortunate we have a partnership where we talk and understand each other.”
Home assistant coach Baek Jang Seok was left to ponder what had gone wrong as the players fell way short of head coach Lee Lim Saeng’s high standards in their third domestic defeat of the season.
“It was definitely one of our worst performances this year,” he admitted sombrely.
“We usually could afford one or two players in the team being off-colour on the pitch, but today we had four or five who were definitely not good enough in terms of movement, fitness and concentration, especially in the first half.”
Baek also conceded the Protectors had to tear up their pre-match script as Balestier took control and secured a lead they clung on to right to the final whistle.
“Whatever we had practised and planned was not working out,” he lamented.
“We started off with a back three but Balestier dominated from the beginning. With one of the best centreback pairings in the league, they were very tough to break down and their defensive line was superbly well-organised.
“We should accept we did badly in this defeat and learn to play better from now on in our upcoming games.”