Bulls Shift Focus Towards League Uplift
Created on Monday, 16 July 2012 02:57
As the Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League season gets back into gear, after the excitement of the RHB Singapore Cup quarterfinals ties dies down, the clash at Jurong West Stadium on Thursday evening looks certain to ensure the entertainment level will remain high in Singapore football.
Gombak United, buoyed by their two-legged Cup success over Hougang United, can now focus on their S.League programme for another couple of weeks, before League Cup action takes over.
And who better to usher in the next phase than Balestier Khalsa, coached by the Bulls’ former tactician Darren Stewart?
The contingent of former Gombak players now plying their trade with the Tigers certainly makes for some potentially feisty fare at Jurong West.
Indeed the Bulls, with almost an entirely new team this season, have shown their ability to regenerate and still dish out some decent stuff, but their position on the league ladder does not do them any justice.
New coach K. Balagumaran, who succeeded Stewart this year, has done a good job to mould a new team from the remains of the old one, and his assistant Stephen Ng, who has been looking after the side while the main man is away in Japan on an AFC coaching course, has kept the momentum going.
Not only have they progressed to the semifinals of the RHB Singapore Cup under Ng’s watch, the former national goalkeeper has had the chance to blood some youngsters in along the way, and as the club’s Prime League coach he knows plenty about those.
In the matches against Hougang, he gave new signing Iqbal Hamid Hussain his first start, and he has also included others like Amin Rossady and Asyik Abdullah on his bench.
It bears noting that Ng did not even have his full complement of youth talents available back then, as he had to manage without players drafted into the Singapore Under-22 squad competing in Indonesia in the AFC Under-22 Asian Cup qualifiers.
To be without speed demon Samuel Benjamin Nadarajah, prodigious attacker Fareez Farhan and the rather more brutal Ahmad Suhaimi – all next-generation footballers – and still come out on top speaks volumes for Ng and his team’s true abilities.
But as Ng stressed, basking in the joy of their Cup games is ‘so last week’, in a manner of speaking.
Speaking to sleague.com after seeing both his S.League and Prime League teams go through rigorous training on Wednesday evening, the 42-year-old made clear just which match he had his mind on.
“I am not thinking anymore about the Cup success, even if the players got a lot of confidence from that win and the morale is good again,” he declared.
“We are focusing on the league programme again now, and we are targeting maximum points from our next three games, including this one against Balestier.
“We won’t be playing for a point, as we need three to begin our move away from the lower end of the table. After our next two games, including this one, there’s a long break again, so we want the points in the bag before that happens.”
Ng’s preparations for this game was possibly more measured than that of his opposite number at Balestier, who had a longer break between games.
The Tigers were not involved in the Cup games last week, but then they had the misfortune of losing their first-round tie on penalties against SAFFC, who proceeded to overcome holders Home United and will now challenge the Bulls for a spot in the final in late October.
That has given Stewart almost three full weeks to set his charges up for this game, compared to the five days Ng got, not that the latter was complaining.
Despite having a few seasoned campaigners, even among those who joined Gombak only this year, fatigue seems less of an issue than many may make it out to be.
One old head will certainly sit out of this one for the home side, with Walid Lounis having picked up a red card against Home in the last league outing.
But with the versatility offered by Adrian Dhanaraj and Ismail Yunos, who normally play at holding midfield and fullback respectively, that front appears to be adequately covered.
“The players are all fit, even Nurullah (Hussein), who had to come off near the end of our last match,” revealed Ng.
“To cater for the absence of Walid I’ll probably move Ismail into the middle.
“I have plenty of attacking options, with Hafiz (Rahim) showing some form again and (Jung Hee) Bong doing well too. Mustaqim (Manzur) is beginning to show up well again, so we are well served on the flanks, although I expect K. Vikraman to play along the back again.
“We are looking at ways to expose any weaknesses in the Balestier side, with some of my players well aware (of what some of those deficiencies might be).”
A few of those deficiencies might have showed up in the Tigers’ last appearance at Clementi Stadium, where they were felled 1-3 by Tampines Rovers.
It might bear noting that several players were nursing injuries prior to that game, so the last three weeks would have offered adequate time for them to approach full fitness again.
All the same, Stewart had expressed his disappointment that night at the result, admitting that he would need to figure out what had gone wrong, as he said he would be shouldering the bulk of the blame himself for the outcome of that game.
It is this quality of offering to take the blame whenever things do not go well that has endeared the former Australia international to players, bosses and fans alike, and he was keen not to ruin his popularity with unnecessary comments ahead of this return to his former stamping ground.
Similarly, the large group of old friends among the playing staff of both camps was worth noting, as they remain amiable towards one another despite swapping shirts in the off-season.
Vikraman was with Balestier for the last few years before moving to Jurong West, while more than half a dozen players have made the journey in the opposite direction, including Korean midfielder Park Kang Jin and former Bulls skipper Jaslee Hatta, to name but two.
Utility man Shafuan Sutohmoh was the latest to make the switch, having played in a few games for Gombak before featuring for the Toa Payoh-based club last month, immediately playing his part in the defeat of Home.
With such a good understanding among one another, it is no wonder Balestier have looked the goods this season as Jaslee, Park et al add to an already highly-rated group including captain Paul Cunningham, Poh Yi Feng, Andrew Tan and Joey Sim.
But none of that will faze Gombak captain Obadin Gabriel Aikhena, Ismail or the other veteran Bulls, who have adapted well to new coach Balagumaran’s – and now Ng’s – urgings.
They have their new mainstays as well, with the inclusion of former Etoile midfielder Julien Durand, English driving force Chris Anderson, fleet-footed wingers Mustaqim and Hafiz, and a most uncompromising Dhanaraj.
There is no shortage of quality in the Gombak ranks on that basis, and it surely will not be long before they make their move from the lower rungs of the ladder to a comfortable mid-table position at least.
Crowds at Jurong West Stadium have been holding up well, reflecting the loyal supporters’ belief that that day will come soon enough, as the players continue to offer their decent rendition of passing football coupled with some determined defending.
The welcome they give to their former favourites should also be most interesting.