Football: Balestier, Geylang hope revamped squads will spark new chapters

New Balestier coach Akbar Nawas with his players in training on Feb 22, 2022. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - After forgettable 2021 campaigns, Geylang International and Balestier Khalsa are hoping major squad revamps will spark an improvement in their Singapore Premier League (SPL) fortunes this season.

Geylang, sixth of eight teams last term, have retained only five senior players - goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam, defenders Faizal Roslan and Abdil Qaiyyim, defensive midfielder Umar Akbar and forward Fareez Farhan -for the upcoming campaign.

Balestier, one spot below them in seventh, have kept faith with just four - defenders Amer Hakeem and Ensar Bruncevic, midfielder Gareth Low and Japanese forward Shuhei Hoshino.

The Tigers, who open against Tampines Rovers on Feb 26 (Saturday) at the Toa Payoh Stadium, also have a new face in the dugout. Singaporean Akbar Nawas, 46, takes over from long-serving Croat Marko Kraljevic, 56, who was head coach in two separate spells from 2014 to 2021.

Under Kraljevic, Balestier played an old-fashioned direct, physical style. Akbar, who in 2019 was named the I-League's best coach after leading Chennai City to their first Indian league title, has promised to instil a possession-based, attacking philosophy.

His Chennai side scored 48 times in 20 matches with a quick, passing style that led Indian media to label his team "tiki-taka technicians".

Akbar said: "I like to think of it as a new dawn for the club. My coaching staff and I are working hard to ensure our players understand the rationale behind what we do and more importantly, are brave enough to play without fear."

Among his new signings are former Albirex Niigata forwards Ryoya Taniguchi and Kuraba Kondo. The dynamic pair, with 17 goals between them last season, appear perfectly suited to complement Akbar's evolution.

Akbar, who signed a two-year contract, said: "We have to be realistic and realise that change does not happen overnight.

"I'm sure there will be instances this season where we might get thrashed. Outsiders may brand us naive or stubborn but what's important is that the players believe in this new direction.

"Success for us this season would be for people to identify us as a team that dominates possession. Slowly but surely, we will then look to compete for honours in the years ahead."

Left-back Ho Wai Loon, 28, has joined from the Lion City Sailors and is excited about the new journey. He said: "Since coach Akbar came in, we have all embraced this new philosophy but we know it'll be a tough season ahead. But so far, all the new players have settled in well and it already feels like a very bonded group."

Left-back Ho Wai Loon (on the ball) joined Balestier Khalsa from the Lion City Sailors. PHOTO: ST FILE

Geylang, who face a tough opening fixture against champions Sailors - they lost 8-0 last April - on March 4 at Our Tampines Hub, have also been busy with changes.

The Eagles have signed Sime Zuzul, the 26-year-old Croat who scored 30 goals in three seasons at Balestier, and French midfielder Vincent Bezecourt, who previously played in the United States' Major League Soccer and Europa League. Former Albirex duo Takahiro Tezuka and Rio Sakuma complete the foreign quartet.

Head coach Noor Ali, 46, has targeted a fourth-placed finish. He is in the final leg of a three-year contract extension he signed in 2019 and he hopes it ends on a high.

Noor Ali spent six seasons as a player and won the league title (2001) and the Singapore Cup (2009) with the Eagles. He said: "Every year, regardless if it was the first year of my contract or last, I have had only one objective - to see this club compete with the best.

"But to meet our objectives for this season, we need a collective effort from everyone involved, from new signings to the young players. We didn't have the best of seasons last year but everyone is raring to go."

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