Pennant wants to show what he's capable of
Tampines' star says tonight's clash is the kind of game all pros want to play in
TAMPINES ROVERS v SELANGOR
(Tonight, 7pm, StarHub TV Ch 210 & Singtel TV Ch 116)
Twenty-four hours before the biggest club game to be staged at the new National Stadium, groundsmen were busy working on the pitch, while players from Tampines Rovers and Selangor trained ahead of today's crucial AFC Cup Group E clash.
After an intense weekend of rugby action in the HSBC Singapore Sevens at the venue three weeks ago, and a host of field events over five days in the just-concluded Asia Masters Athletics Championships, the turf still showed off white markings and was patchy in areas.
Looking at the parched pitch, Tampines' attacking star Jermaine Pennant broke into a wry smile and told The New Paper: "It doesn't look as good as I thought it would, but it is still better than some of the pitches we have played on."
The former Arsenal and Liverpool winger, who played in the 2007 Champions League final in front of 63,000 fans at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, where the Reds fell to AC Milan, is set to play a crucial role if Tampines are to overcome Selangor and qualify for the knockout rounds of Asia's second-tier club competition.
The Stags are second in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League and have to beat Selangor to advance, while the Malaysian giants need only a point.
The capture of Pennant made headlines across Asia and was regarded as a coup.
While the 33-year-old Englishman has been good so far, he hasn't exactly taken matches by the scruff of the neck.
The former England Under-21 international claimed he has enjoyed his time in Singapore.
"It is easier here, of course," said Pennant.
"The standard is definitely different from the English Premier League, so that's an easy comparison."
His passing technique, crossing ability and skill with the set-piece have shone through, especially in his first AFC Cup outing, in which he had a hand in all the goals in the 4-0 drubbing of Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi.
Pennant has the stats to back him up. In 14 games across all competitions, he has notched up three goals and six assists - he has not scored more than four goals for any of his previous 12 clubs.
He was quick to point out he has started just nine games for Tampines.
"There is definitely more to come because I have not started every game," he insisted.
"But I'm settled in now. My target is double figures for goals and assists. I'm more than halfway towards that goal for assists, and there's still more than half the season for me to reach 10 goals."
Of course, the high-profile signing has had to endure some roughhouse tactics.
After coming on as a second-half substitute in a recent 1-1 draw at Hougang United, he engaged in a running feud with the likes of Nazrul Ahmad Nazari and Yusiskandar Yusop.
Pennant understands this could be part of Selangor's game plan too, but claimed it will only spur him on.
"There has been a lot of media coverage and maybe some of the local players in the opposing teams have put a target on me," he said.
"The best reaction is just to contribute to the team and win the match, really."
As a marquee player who has featured at the highest level, Pennant knows what it is like in crunch ties.
"This is a Singaporean team playing opponents from a neighbouring country, at home in this nice stadium.
"It feels like a proper football match. This is what football is about, what professionals live for, and we must all rise to the occasion," he said.
"Before and during the match, I will give my tactical input. Sure, there may be butterflies at the start.
"It is important that we have a good start, complete that first simple pass to gain confidence, and we'll be fine."
“It doesn’t look as good as I thought it would, but it is still better than some of the pitches we have played on.”
— Tampines Rovers’ former EPL star Jermaine Pennant on the state of the pitch at the National Stadium
Wleh vows to end Tampines' dream
As Selangor warmed up at the National Stadium yesterday, a teammate came up to striker Patrick Wleh during this interview and playfully taunted: "Why talk to him? He didn't score."
The 24-year-old Liberian, whose goal drought has extended to three games, responded with a scowl and told The New Paper: "Every time I don't score, my family, fans and teammates will be angry with me.
"But I will always remember what my former coach told me, to feel free and confident, just like I felt back at home in Liberia.
"I also feel bad when I don't score, but I know I will always end up scoring again. I am confident of scoring in every game."
If Wleh (above) is right, then Tampines Rovers will do well to keep him on a tight leash in tonight's AFC Cup clash.
The Selangor No. 4 has struck fear in defences since he signed his first professional terms with Sime Darby in the Malaysian Super League in 2012, after firing in 25 goals in 29 games for Liberian side LISCR Monrovia from 2009 to 2011.
Into his fifth season in Malaysia, the man nicknamed "Ronaldinho" has scored nearly 80 goals in just over 100 matches in Malaysian and AFC competitions.
This season, he is already in double figures with 11, with two coming in the AFC Cup.
While with PKNS FC, Wleh also had a decent record against Tampines goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud who used to play for the LionsXII, scoring in a 3-1 defeat in 2013 and notching the winner in a 2-1 victory in 2014.
However, his biggest claim to fame was when he scored the opener for a Malaysia selection side that held English giants Liverpool 1-1 in a friendly last year.
The 1.85m forward believes he can score tonight and send his team through to the AFC Cup Round of 16 at the Stags' expense.
"I like playing against Singaporean teams. They play good football, like Malaysian teams, but they are not as fast," he said.
"Scoring against Liverpool felt really good. Hopefully, I can do that again in this big stadium."
The most recognisable import at the National Stadium tonight, however, will be Tampines' former Arsenal and Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant, and Wleh is fine with that, although he has dreams of playing on bigger stages.
"I respect all the foreign footballers because they have vast experience," he said.
"This is also my first season playing in the AFC Cup, but I feel like I have proven myself with my goals since 2012.
"Of course, I want to play at a higher level. I believe I can play in Japan or China in two years' time when I find myself a good manager or agent." - DAVID LEE