S'pore Cup final tonight: Balestier counting on their backbone
BALESTIER KHALSA v HOME UNITED
(Tonight, 7.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz)
Jose Mourinho's successful first spell at Chelsea showed what a team can achieve with a strong spine.
The Portuguese tactician had one "general" in every area of the pitch - Petr Cech in goal, John Terry in defence, Frank Lampard in midfield and Didier Drogba up front.
That same formula has been the secret to Balestier Khalsa's success this season.
After star striker Qiu Li and Nigerian defender Obadin Aikhena left for greener pastures at the end of last season, not many expected the Tigers to finish in the top half of the table or qualify for the RHB Singapore Cup final.
The acrimonious departure of coach Darren Stewart was another massive blow.
But his replacement, rookie S.League coach Marko Kraljevic, stayed optimistic.
"Yes, at the start, maybe the seas were rough," said the German-born Croat, who is a Singapore permanent resident.
"But, after one month of pre-season working with the team, I knew we have a good team. We just needed a little time."
Kraljevic, who turned out for Balestier from 1996 to 1998 as an attacking midfielder, set about creating a cast-iron backbone for the team.
And he reckons the Tigers' solid spine can help them to their first RHB Singapore Cup, when they play Home United tonight in the final.
In goal, Balestier can rely on goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam.
"There's not much to say about Zaiful that people don't already know," said Kraljevic.
"He's done a great job again this year, and he's maybe only second to (Warriors FC shot-stopper and Player of the Year nominee) Hassan Sunny as the S.League's best.
"He has played every game, and the consistency he has shown is amazing."
In front of Zaiful, Bosnian defender Emir Lotinac, whom Kraljevic brought in to replace Aikhena, has also been superb.
With Balestier captain and centre half Paul Cunningham a major doubt for the final with a groin injury, they are counting on Lotinac to lead from the back.
"Emir has done a super job," said his coach.
"Did you know that he has played the whole season, but has picked up just two yellow cards? Do you know how difficult that is for a centre back?
"This shows how good his reading of the game is, winning the ball off strikers cleanly and not going in for tackles blindly."
Linking defence and attack is midfielder Park Kang Jin.
The South Korean featured in just six matches in the first six months of the year due to a mysterious knee injury, but since shaking it off he has often been unplayable.
Said Kraljevic: "I've mentioned many times already that Park is one of the best playmakers in the S.League.
"The quality of his through-passes and crosses, the way he keeps possession... He can win games for you on his own."
And up front, Balestier's Drogba, if you will, is the hulking 1.90m-tall Goran Ljubojevic.
Like Lotinac, the former Dinamo Zagreb star was signed by Kraljevic, who demanded 20 league goals from his new targetman.
Ljubojevic duly delivered.
"I've been here a long time and I know that a striker like Goran can make all the difference," said Kraljevic.
"Look at all the top strikers in the S.League over the years: Jure Eres (1.89m), Goran Paulic (1.89m), Aleksandar Duric (1.92m)... All big, strong strikers.
"Give them good balls in the box and they will score. With Goran, who was playing in the top division in Croatia, and a former Croatian Under-21 international, I knew he was good enough to be a success."
With the four in excellent form, Balestier punched above their weight and surged to a sixth-place finish.
In the Singapore Cup, they have knocked out Warriors FC, Geylang International and Tampines Rovers - who collectively have won five of the last eight editions of the tournament.
Kraljevic reckons his team can pull off another surprise against Home, the competition's most successful team with six wins.
"We will play Home with no worries on our minds," he said coolly.
"In the S.League this season, we lost to them 2-1 and 1-0, but we also beat them 3-0. We know we can beat them again.
"In a final, anything can happen.
"If the boys play to their 100 per cent as always, and are able to maybe put in an extra 10 per cent, I'm confident we can win."
GORAN LJUBOJEVIC V SIRINA CAMARA
Balestier's main goal threat will come in the form of 1.90m-tall targetman Goran Ljubojevic.
The 31-year-old (left) has plundered 26 goals in all competitions but only two have come in the RHB Singapore Cup.
The former Dinamo Zagreb and Croatia Under-21 star is likely to come up against Home's versatile defender Sirina Camara.
Although the 1.78m-tall Frenchman (right) is at a disadvantage in terms of height, he possesses a good leap and has been one of Home's most dynamic and important players since joining in 2013.
Camara needs to be at his best to keep Goran the Great quiet.
PARK KANG JIN V LEE KWAN WOO
The student is about to take on the master.
In an interview with The New Paper in October last year, Balestier playmaker Park Kang Jin revealed how star-struck he was at sharing the pitch with Home's former South Korea international Lee Kwan Woo, a player he watched as a kid.
"He's too big a player for me to talk to," 27-year-old Park (left) told TNP then, but he will no doubt be trying to upstage his idol tonight.
Lee (right) is 36 and is hindered by troublesome knees these days, but he still oozes class with his vision, passing range and set-piece ability.
The former Suwon Samsung Bluewings star has scored three goals in the Singapore Cup.
The final could well be decided by which South Korean playmaker turns on the style tonight.
NURULLAH HUSSEIN V INDRA SAHDAN
One is a rookie defender, the other a deadly striker who has scored against the likes of Manchester United, Uruguay and Japan.
But the battle between Balestier's 21-year-old fullback-turned-centre back Nurullah Hussein and Home's 35-year-old forward Indra Sahdan is unlikely to be one-sided.
Left-footed Nurullah (left), who joined the Tigers from Courts Young Lions at the start of the season, has performed well during captain Paul Cunningham's absence from the heart of defence.
Coach Marko Kraljevic has even labelled him "my biggest surprise" this season.
Indra (right), meanwhile, looks to have won the battle with Fazrul Nawaz for Home's starting striker spot. He will be determined to repay Lee Lim Saeng's faith.
The veteran scorer, who has scored just five goals in all competitions, will also be desperate to add to that tally.