Bruncevic back to boost Balestier after red card reprieve

The 1.96m Ensar Bruncevic was limited to just five matches before a knee injury ended his season last year. In those five matches, the Tigers conceded five goals, compared to 23 in nine games without him. Now, they have the SPL's second-best defensiv
The 1.96m Ensar Bruncevic was limited to just five matches before a knee injury ended his season last year. In those five matches, the Tigers conceded five goals, compared to 23 in nine games without him. Now, they have the SPL's second-best defensive record.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

The Lion City Sailors' emphatic 8-0 win over Geylang International last Sunday has put the rest of the Singapore Premier League (SPL) on notice.

But perhaps what is more worrying is that their star signing Diego Lopes looks to be coming into the form that convinced the club to shell out $2.9 million for his services after bagging a hat-trick and two assists.

Despite this, their opponents tomorrow, Balestier Khalsa, are not quaking in their boots for their match at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

A large part of their confidence is due to the league's tallest player, the 1.96m Serbian centre-back Ensar Bruncevic.

After six matches this season, the Tigers have the SPL's second-best defensive record. They have conceded just seven goals, with only defending champions Albirex Niigata shipping in fewer (four).

Bruncevic was limited to just five matches before a knee injury ended his season prematurely last year. But his value to the team was proven in his absence.

In the five matches that he featured in, the Tigers conceded five goals and lost just once.

But in the nine matches without the 22-year-old, Balestier leaked 23 goals, with the Sailors accounting for more than half that tally with 5-2 and 7-1 thrashings.

Initially suspended for this tie after picking up a red card in last Saturday's 1-0 defeat by Hougang United, he and the Tigers were boosted earlier this week when the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) announced that the ban would be lifted with immediate effect. The decision was made after consultation with the FAS Referees Committee, following a review of the incident using video footage from the match.

Bruncevic, who is fondly referred to as "Bruno" at Balestier, is eager for his first outing against the Sailors and likened it to facing Serbian giants Red Star Belgrade and FK Partizan as a youth player.

He said: "To me, they are the best team in the league. They have plenty of great individual players like Stipe (Plazibat), Diego (Lopes) and Gabriel (Quak). And these are the kind of matches that I want to play in. It is always a good challenge to face top clubs.

"When I was younger, I played Partizan and Red Star in youth matches and they were always the ones I was very excited (about)."

Tigers head coach Marko Kraljevic is pleased with his defender's contribution.

Said the Croat: "When he is around, everything is better. We struggled when he was not around last year. He gives the whole team, from goalkeeper to strikers, much more confidence.

"The best thing about him is that he is always working so hard and gives me his 200 per cent in every training and match. And everyone at the club can see how focused he is on always improving himself."

Sailors head coach Aurelio Vidmar is expecting a tough match tomorrow, despite last year's scorelines against the same opponents.

He said: "We are fully aware of the challenge... against Balestier. They've been playing very well over the last month so it's a different challenge for us, a team that's very direct and aggressive. We certainly will not be taking them lightly. They've got some very good footballers and, now that they're right at full strength with Bruno's red card being rescinded, it gives them an added strength in height, in defence."

While opposing coaches have already started to earmark him as a threat, Bruncevic is eager to do more. His drive to succeed here has much to do with the history of his compatriots.

Local football luminaries like Mustafic Fahrudin, Sead Muratovic, Sead Hadzibulic and Esad Sejdic, all hail from the same Serbian town as Bruncevic: Novi Pazar.

Now, "Bruno" wants to follow in their footsteps.

He said: "My family, my friends and I are all aware of their success in Singapore... I knew about their history. They told me that if I worked hard, I will get rewarded here. I want to stay here for a long time and my motivation is always to give good news to my family back home."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2021, with the headline 'Bruncevic back to boost Balestier after red card reprieve'. Subscribe