Best of the rest aim to upset the odds


Change and renewal may be the buzzwords for most clubs in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) with every new campaign heralding significant changes within squads, but Balestier Khalsa are going against the grain this year.

In a bid to improve on their fifth-placed finish in the league last season, the Tigers have retained at least 90 per cent of their squad.

They are also the only club in the league to have retained all four foreigners from last season.

Croatian forwards Kristijan Krajcek and Sime Zuzul are into their third seasons with the club while Japanese forward Shuhei Hoshino and Serbian defender Ensar Bruncevic will be heading into their sophomore campaigns.

Said coach Marko Kraljevic, 55: "That (continuity) is very important for us and we decided not to change much from last season. I felt this would be good for the club and for the players here to know we have a plan for them.

"The players and I know each other well so there hasn't been the need for too many players to come in and need time to adjust to us."

Balestier are looking to qualify for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup this year after missing out on a berth by one point in the previous campaign.

The second-highest ranked local team in the league and the Singapore Cup winners will qualify for the 2022 AFC Cup.

To do that, Kraljevic wants his side to fix the leak at the back. In 14 games last season, Balestier conceded 28 goals.

He said: "We have to be tighter in our defence and ensure that we bring down the average of goals we let in. Last season, it was two goals a game and this season we need to try and cut that to 1 ½ at least.

"It's going to be a stronger league this year because everyone has a chance to have a good season. But we must be focused on our objective and we need to show we have improved as a team from last year."

Balestier's aim to qualify for the AFC Cup will likely come under threat from Hougang United, Geylang International or Tanjong Pagar - who have all strengthened significantly this season.

Geylang, who pipped Balestier to fourth last season, have added Brazilian winger Matheus Moresche, Dutch attacker Sylvano Comvalius and seasoned midfielder Izzdin Shafiq, who captained the Lion City Sailors last year.

Hougang, who finished sixth last term, have snapped up former Geylang striker Khairul Nizam, former national captain Shahril Ishak, former Albirex Niigata top scorer Tomoyuki Doi and fellow Japanese Kaishu Yamazaki.

Tanjong Pagar, who finished last, have grand ambitions this year as well - a sign that this season could prove to be more competitive.

The Jaguars have snapped up Reo Nishiguchi from Albirex Niigata, former Lions forward Khairul Amri and Australian midfielder Blake Ricciuto, who won the 2019 SPL with Brunei DPMM.

Team manager Noh Alam Shah is counting on his side to be "party poopers".

He said: "We are very confident this year compared to the previous season. We've assembled a very balanced squad and we are going to try to finish as high as possible. I've even been telling the players that this is going to be our year. We have prepared really well."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2021, with the headline 'Best of the rest aim to upset the odds'. Subscribe