SINGAPORE - Local club side Home United are looking to reach their second AFC Cup Asean zonal final in as many seasons, but the Protectors will be the underdogs when they host Indonesian side Persija Jakarta in their semi-final, first-leg clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday (May 8) night, according to coach Aidil Sharin.
The 40-year-old, who led Home to the AFC Cup Asean final last year, where they lost 2-3 on aggregate to Philippine side Ceres Negros, pointed to his side's hectic schedule and his much-changed side, as reasons for this.
Persija have not played a match since April 24, when they beat Tampines Rovers, another Singapore Premier League (SPL) club, 4-2 at Jalan Besar in their final AFC Cup group match. Home, meanwhile, will be playing their third game in seven days.
"Persija have had more rest, but I cannot complain," said Aidil.
"Our league has made the schedule this way, they cannot change it, so we have to deal with it... If we want to win, we must focus and be mentally strong.
"Persija are favourites, but football is full of surprises and the boys are up for it."
The Straits Times understands that Home requested some of their fixtures moved ahead of the Persija game, but were rebuffed by the SPL.
They played two 3-3 draws last week - against Hougang United on Wednesday and then Warriors FC on Saturday - having led 3-1 and 3-2, respectively.
Aidil said defensive ruggedness was needed against Persija and their star striker Marko Simic, who is the AFC Cup's joint-leading scorer with eight goals, and insisted he was confident his side can cope with the threat of the 1.87m striker.
This is because he will field a more experienced side in the AFC Cup, compared to domestic league matches, as he not bound by the rule of having to play three Under-23 players in games.
This, added Aidil, was also one of the reasons he is prouder of guiding Home to the final four of the AFC Cup in 2018 than last year.
"Last year, we did well to get to the final, but luck also played some part," he said.
"Now, there is an opportunity for the boys to show they can repeat the (feat), and that they want to.
"It's more difficult this year, for sure, because we've changed 12 players (in the squad of 24) and some players are still adapting to my style and the team's style, and we're in May.
"If you change half of Real Madrid or Barcelona's squad before a season, most likely they will not end that season as champions.
"But, it (the changes) are not an excuse for me. We have to treat this game like a final, and we want to do well."
A good result at Jalan Besar is imperative for Home, who will travel to Jakarta to play the second leg on May 15 at the famous Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, which has an official capacity of 75,000 but has recorded crowds of over 100,000 in the past.
Persija won all their home games in the group stage, scoring nine goals and conceding just once.
This includes a 4-0 thumping of Malaysian side Johor Darul Takzim, watched by over 60,000, and a 4-1 win over Tampines, attended by almost 50,000. The next highest attendance in the AFC Cup this season was a mere 18,500, in Turkmenistan.
Home midfielder Izzdin Shafiq said: "We all know the away match will be difficult, so we have to make sure we take our chances at home.
"We want to get the win first, then think of a strategy for the game in Jakarta."
Added Aidil: "No point preparing for the 100,000 fans in the second leg, if we don't get the result we need here."
Persija coach Stefano Cugurra Teco said he was not only relying on the rabid Indonesian support in the second leg.
"In the semi-finals, we cannot say it's okay to lose here, we can win there," said the 43-year-old Brazilian. "We cannot make a mistake in Singapore."
Teco added that his team will be "more ready" to play on the artificial surface at Jalan Besar, and said his players had "doubts" even as they ran out 4-2 winners over Tampines last month.
The South American, who coached four Thai sides from 2010 to 2016, added he was not underestimating Home.
"They are a good club who have played a lot in the AFC Cup, so they have good experience," he said. "They topped their group and surprised Ceres (with a 2-0 win in Philippines in the group stage)... They are a strong opponent with good quality players."
Should Home overcome Persija, they will play either Ceres or Myanmar's Yangon United in the Asean zone final.
If they become Asean zone champions, they will still be three ties away from AFC Cup glory ( the two-leg inter-zone play-off semi-finals and the final).
Home, along with Geylang United (now known as Geylang International) are the best Singapore performers in the history of the AFC Cup, after they reached the semi-final of the competition in 2004, only to be respectively knocked out by Middle East opponents.
Home United v Persija Jakarta (Tuesday, May 8, 7.30pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)