Pennant set for No. 10 role
Stags star feels he can contribute more playing behind striker Mehmet
TAMPINES ROVERS v
SHEIKH JAMAL DHANMONDI
(Tonight, 7.20pm, Singtel TV Ch 115 & StarHub TV Ch 209)
The year 2007 holds special meaning for Tampines Rovers and their marquee signing Jermaine Pennant.
Back then, the Stags were one of the best South-east Asian teams as they qualified for the AFC Cup quarter-finals, losing 7-3 on aggregate to Jordan's Al-Faisaly.
For Pennant, he was at the peak of his career and was one of the star players for Liverpool in the Champions League final, where the Reds lost 2-1 to AC Milan in Athens.
Almost a decade on, Pennant is trying to resurrect his career in Singapore and, tonight, he will get his first taste of the AFC Cup, an Asian Football Confederation competition for clubs from "developing countries" in the continent.
Jalan Besar is no Olympic Stadium and Bangladesh side Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi are hardly glamour opponents, but the 33-year-old insists he has no problem with that.
"I feel great. Whether it is the S.League, AFC Cup or the other cup competitions, it's always good to play in any competition for Tampines. I'm definitely taking every game seriously and I'm looking forward to putting in a good performance along with my team," said Pennant yesterday.
"People might call it a step down, but I'm looking at it as a step up, a chance to achieve things I maybe couldn't in England.
"We have a strong squad to go further than before and this represents the best chance in recent years for us to go far in this competition."
The former England Under-21 international was not registered in time for the AFC Champions League qualifier defeat by Mohun Bagan last month.
He is likely to start tonight, but not in his customary role as a winger. Instead, he could line up as a No. 10 behind main striker Billy Mehmet.
"I'm looking to get the ball in and setting up the forwards. It looks like the best role for me which will benefit Tampines more," said Pennant, who has seen only 35 minutes of competitive action in the 3-3 S.League draw with Geylang International on Feb 15, after recovering from a hamstring injury.
"We are a big team with big ambitions, so of course there's pressure. We have not won yet, but there's no reason why we can't start winning now.
"People will see the real Tampines after five or six games."
Meanwhile, Dhanmondi skipper Wedson Anselme is hoping to continue his red-hot scoring streak that has seen him pick up the Bangladesh Premier League top-scorer award for the past two seasons with 44 goals.
The 1.75m-tall Haitian hotshot is a powerful and pacy forward who looked confident in training at the Jalan Besar Stadium yesterday in his Argentina-inspired kit and gold chain.
Tampines would do well to shackle him, considering that their AFC Champions League dreams were dashed by another speedy Haitian, Sony Norde from Mohun Bagan.
"Sony is my friend from the national team and we play a similar style of football. I know what he did to Tampines and I will try to do the same," said Wedson with a grin.
"We came here for a win and, to do that, we are going to play hard football."
Pennant experienced first-hand how robust Singapore football can be when he made his S.League debut against Geylang International, although it was Tampines who had two players sent off.
He said: "Teams can play hard but fair and the referees have got to do their job to ensure nobody goes past the boundaries.
"I've played some physical teams back in England like my former club Stoke City. It didn't faze me at all back then and it won't now."
Editor's note: In an earlier version of the story, it was reported that Geylang International had two players sent off in the S.League match against Tampines Rovers. It should be Tampines who had two players sent off.
Sundram expects Tampines to do well in AFC Cup
SMILING STAGS: Tampines Rovers players having a light moment during training yesterday. PHOTO: STRAITS TIMES MIDFIELD MUSCLE: Dhanmondi’s foreign midfielder, Nguyen Hang Tcheuko Minh, a Cameroonian who took up Vietnamese citizenship. TNP PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR
The Dazzler knows the score.
It has been more than seven years since a Singaporean team made it to the last eight of the AFC Cup.
That was in 2008 when SAFFC and Home United were ousted at the quarter-final stage.
Tampines Rovers coach V Sundramoorthy feels that the wait has been too long and it is time his team, whose last appearance in the last eight was in 2007, rise to the occasion.
At yesterday's pre-match press conference for tonight's Group E clash with Bangladesh Premier League champions Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi at Jalan Besar Stadium, the 50-year-old said: "We have good imports (Jermaine Pennant, Billy Mehmet, Jordan Webb and Kwon Jun), good players from the LionsXII and seasoned players who have big-match experience with the national team.
"Yes, we have to work on our defence but, going forward, we have enough firepower. With this team, we can dream of accomplishing big things.
"There have been more fans coming to watch the S.League matches.
"I'm sure the Bangladeshi fans will also turn up, so I'm hoping for a full stadium to liven up the atmosphere and give our boys a boost.
"It's an opportunity for us to show the fans we can go far in this competition. We are ambitious and we are looking forward to success on all fronts this season."
The top two in each group will progress to the Round of 16.
To go far, the Stags will first need to plug a leaky defence that has conceded three each in the AFC Champions League qualifier defeat by Mohun Bagan (1-3) and the S.League opener against Geylang International (3-3).
Tampines were raided by the pace of Mohun Bagan's Haiti winger Sony Norde, and they will need to keep an eye on his countryman tonight.
Dhanmondi's powerful forward Wedson Anselme scored 18 goals in 20 games last term to finish as the Bangladesh Premier League's topscorer.
"Our defence has to play above themselves," said Sundram.
"Other than their Haiti striker, they have two African imports and even their Asian foreigner is a Vietnamese-Cameroonian."
Sundram was referring to Nigerian forward Emeka Onouha, Gambian midfielder Landing Darboe and Cameroon-born midfielder Nguyen Hang Tcheuko Minh, who became a Vietnamese citizen.
Added Sundram: "Nothing is going to come easy, so we have to prepare well. If our players turn up and play to the best of their ability, we should be fine."
Dhanmondi coach Shafiqul Islam Manik acknowledged that his side are the underdogs in a group that also consists of Malaysian giants Selangor and Filipino outfit Ceres FC, but promised to give the other teams a run for their money.
The 49-year-old, who is also the Bangladesh national coach and took charge of Dhanmondi only 10 days ago, said: "We are still in pre-season and, although we are prepared, we are still not 100 per cent yet.
"We played our AFC Cup qualifiers last year and won against Macau's Benfica and drew against Kyrgyzstan's Alga.
"We don't know much about Tampines other than they are a professional side who will have the advantage of playing at home.
"But this is the first time that Bangladesh is back in this competition and we want to represent our country well. We are ready to play to win."