Football: Tampines Rovers ready for busy year; next up is Indonesia's Makassar in AFC Cup

Tampines Rovers coach Gavin Lee said he is content with his squad's depth in advance of the AFC Cup clash on Feb 12, 2020. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE - There might be fewer yellow shirts in the Jalan Besar Stadium stands to cheer his side on, but Tampines Rovers coach Gavin Lee is focused only on the ones on the pitch in Wednesday (Feb 12) night's AFC Cup clash

The Stags host Indonesian side PSM Makassar in their opening Group H fixture, which is also the first professional football game played in Singapore since the government upped its disease outbreak response to code orange last Friday.

Ticket sales as of Tuesday, noted a club official, are 30 per cent lower than Tampines' last match at the same stadium. A crowd of 1,400 saw them lose 3-5 to Bali United in the Asian Champions League play-off on Jan 14.

Lee, however, was unperturbed. "I think it'll be an exciting game. Makassar are a strong team and won the Indonesian Cup last year, and they've improved the team with new signings," he said. "We're all very excited to start the AFC Cup campaign, and let's see what we can do tomorrow."

It promises to be a gruelling campaign ahead for the Stags, who are the Republic's representatives for the inaugural Asean Football Federation (AFF) Asean Club Championship, reportedly set to run from March to November.

Their regional and continental exertions, coupled with their domestic commitments in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) and Singapore Cup competitions, will see them chalk up more than 40 games this term.

Tampines played 36 matches last season as they lifted the Singapore Cup and finished runners-up in the SPL.

Lee, 29, said he was content with his squad's depth and added: "One area we were quite successful with last year, and hopefully that will continue this year, was our ability to stay fresh and injury free. Periodisation will be a little bit more important this year.

"With senior players like Yasir (Hanapi) and Daniel (Bennett), who can manage themselves quite well off the pitch, we have the squad to go all the way through the season."

Makassar coach Bojan Hodak pointed to the settled nature of Tampines' squad as being one of their key strengths and added this was in contrast to his side.

"Even in an office workplace, if you have four or five new employees you need time to understand each other," said the Croatian.

"It's the same here. We had six or seven players play for the first time together in our first match (of the season on Jan 22) and for this match will have another two or three players also playing together for the first time.

"So we will need a little bit of time and training before we can get better."

Hodak, 48, is a familiar face to some in Singapore, having played for local clubs Balestier Central (now known as Balestier Khalsa) and (now-defunct) Jurong FC in the late 1990s.

He said he and his players were not perturbed by the coronavirus situation here. As on Monday night, there were 45 reported cases in Singapore - the highest after China and Japan - while Indonesia has yet to report a case of the highly-infectious disease.

Hodak said: "Singapore is always organised when it comes to things like this. The virus, I think, is more of a problem (indoors) in shopping centres and hotels. On the pitch, we won't have this problem to deal with."

Tampines plan to pay tribute to their former player Shariff Abdul Samat, 36, who died on Tuesday morning after a heart attack. The club are seeking clearances to hold a minute of silence before Wednesday's kick-off and wear black armbands to honour the former defender.

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