Football: Balestier's Bruncevic keen to help tame Lion City

Ensar Bruncevic was limited to just five matches before a knee injury brought a premature end to the season for him.
Ensar Bruncevic was limited to just five matches before a knee injury brought a premature end to the season for him.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

SINGAPORE - 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 for the rest of the field is that their star signing Diego Lopes looks to be coming into the form that convinced the club to shell out S$2.9 million for his services, bagging a hat-trick and two assists.

Despite this, their upcoming opponents, Balestier Khalsa, who will travel to the Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday (April 18), are not quaking in their boots.

And a large part of their confidence is due to the presence of the league's tallest player, the 1.96m tall Serbian centre-back Ensar Bruncevic, in their line-up.

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

Last season, Bruncevic was limited to just five matches before a knee injury brought a premature end to the season for him. But his value to the team was proven in his absence. In the five matches that he featured in, the Tigers conceded only five goals and lost just once.

But in the nine matches without the 22-year-old,Balestier leaked 23 goals - including 5-2 and 7-1 thrashings at the hands of the Sailors.

Initially suspended for this tie after picking up a red card in last weekend's 1-0 defeat by Hougang United, the defender and the Tigers received a boost earlier this week when the Football Association of Singapore announced that the suspension would be lifted with immediate effect. The decision was made after consultation with the FAS Referees Committee, following a thorough 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 for."

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. And 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 on Sunday, despite last year's scorelines against the same opponents.

He said: "We are fully aware of the challenge we have this week 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 that gives them an added strength in height, in defence."

While opposition coaches have already started to earmark him as a threat, Bruncevic is eager to do more, and his drive to succeed here has much to do with the history of his compatriots who made a name for themselves in Singapore.

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 their footsteps.

He said: "My family, my friends and I are all aware of their success in Singapore and how they made a career for themselves after doing well here. 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."