Hanafi impresses on return after 3-year absence
SEA Games head coach Tardy will keep close tabs on Balestier winger's form ahead of August's biennial meet
|BALESTIER KHALSA||GARENA YOUNG LIONS|
|(Aung Kyaw Naing 53)|
It had been more than three years since his last Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League game.
But last night, Balestier Khalsa winger Hanafi Akbar showed the kind of skill and vision that once made him Singapore football's hottest prospect, in his side's 1-0 win over Garena Young Lions (GYL) at the Toa Payoh Stadium.
The 22-year-old, who re-joined Balestier only this week after a year in prison for drug offences, was surprisingly deployed by coach Marko Kraljevic for the second half, with the game still goal-less.
Just eight minutes after his introduction, he controlled the ball on his chest before sending a glorious cross-field volley to teammate Hazzuwan Halim, who squared the ball for Myanmar forward Aung Kyaw Naing to slot home the winner from close range.
Kraljevic said he was delighted for the former 2010 Youth Olympic Games star.
"I'm very happy for Hanafi," said the German-born Croat.
"Honestly, this boy is on a different level. Most players will find it hard to perform after just a month of not playing. He was out for three years and showed he was different tonight.
"Give him some time and he will come good."
Hanafi is determined to put his troubled past behind him, and said that just being back on the pitch in an S.League game is worth savouring.
"It's a great feeling," he said with a big grin, post-match.
"I didn't expect coach would put me on at half-time and I thought I would struggle, so I was a bit nervous. But I thought I had a fair game.
"For now, I don't want to look too far ahead. I just want to get fully fit and be in the best shape that I can be."
Hanafi is eligible for August's South-east Asia (SEA) Games in Kuala Lumpur and his talent could come in handy for the national Under-22 team, who have struggled for goals.
While he understandably looked a little rusty at times and appeared spent towards the end of the match, his performance did not go unnoticed.
SEA Games head coach Richard Tardy, who was in the stands, said: "I know he was a very good young player before, but he must prove today he deserves a place in the squad.
"We have training camps in May and June, and a big (AFC Under-23 Championships qualifying) tournament in July, before the SEA Games.
"For now, as with other players (outside of the Young Lions), I will follow him closely."
With a majority of their squad likely to form the SEA Games team, the Young Lions' problems in front of goal was highlighted last night with their inability to find the target for the third successive game.
Young Lions shot-stopper Fashah Iskandar had already pulled off a terrific stop to deny Aung from the penalty spot in the 23rd minute, but they just could not score.
The closest they got to an equaliser was when Ammirul Emmran's header in injury time was tipped away at full stretch by Zaiful Nizam.
Said their coach V Selvaraj: "I felt luck wasn't on our side. We deserved at least one goal in this game."
BALESTIER KHALSA: Zaiful Nizam, Fadli Kamis, Hanafi Salleh, Ashrul Shafeeq, Ahmad Syahir, Shah Hirul (Raihan Rahman 63), Nanda Linn (Hanafi Akbar 46), Tajeli Salamat (Huzaifah Aziz 69), Hazzuwan Halim, Kyaw Zayar Win, Aung Kyaw Naing
GARENA YOUNG LIONS: Fashah Iskandar, Rusyaidi Salime, Shahrin Saberin, Amirul Adli, Syahrul Sazali (Faizal Roslan 84), Muhelmy Suhaimi, Ammirul Emmran, Muhaimin Suhaimi, Hami Syahin (Haiqal Pashia 68), Taufik Suparno, Jordan Chan (Zulqarnaen Suzliman 60)
S.LEAGUE MAN OF THE MATCH:
Zaiful Nizam (Balestier Khalsa)
- Brunei DPMM 2 Hougang 0