Football: Tough draw for Tampines in AFC Champions League group-stage debut

Tampines Rovers player Taufik Suparno celebrates after scoring during a match at Hougang stadium, on Nov 25, 2020. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Tampines Rovers are set for a big challenge in their first foray into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League when the East Zone group stage kicks off from April 21 to May 7.

The Singapore Premier League (SPL) side will take on Korean champions and two-time Champions League winners (2008 and 2016) Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC, J-League runners up and 2008 Champions League winners Gamba Osaka and A-League champions Sydney FC in Group H.

The teams will play in a double round-robin format at a centralised venue, which is yet to be confirmed.

After the draw was made at the AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday (Jan 27), Tampines chairman Desmond Ong told The Straits Times: "There are no easy draws for us at this level, and we want to pit ourselves against the best. We want to carry on the process we started and play in the Champions League year after year. Nobody gave Denmark a chance at Euro 1992 too, all we can promise is we will do our best."

Despite uncertainty over their overseas commitment owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, Ong is not unduly worried and has backed the AFC to pull off another successful tournament like they did last year.

He added: "It would have been an adventure to have been able to travel to South Korea, Japan and Australia, but we understand the current situation and are in constant dialogue with the regulators."

Noting that the team would undergo frequent testing when the SPL season starts next month, he said that they would go for vaccinations when they become available.

This is the first time Singapore has had a representative in the group stage of Asia's premier club competition since SAFFC competed in 2010.

Other Singaporeans set to feature in this year's Champions League include Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) skipper Hariss Harun, with the Malaysian champions drawn into Group G alongside China's Jiangsu, Japan's Nagoya Grampus and the playoff winners between South Korea's Pohang Steelers and Thailand's Ratchaburi Mitr Phol.

National defender Irfan Fandi is also set to make his Champions League debut with his Thai side BG Pathum drawn into Group F with defending champions Ulsan Hyundai from South Korea, Vietnam's Viettel and another team to be decided by two playoff matches.

Meanwhile, the AFC Cup draw threw up a tantalising clash as Lion City Sailors - previously known as Home United before they were privatised - will face Malaysian side Kedah, who are led by former Home coach Aidil Shahrin.

The 43-year-old Singaporean, who guided Home to victory in the 2018 AFC Cup Asean zone final, is looking forward to the Group H clash. The group also includes Vietnam's Saigon FC and the playoff winner between Cambodia's Visakha and Timor Leste's Lalenok United.

He said: "I'm happy with the grouping because the Sailors and Saigon are good teams, and I'm very excited to meet my former club and players.

"I have been to two zone finals with Home and I don't think I have anything to prove as I have matured coaching overseas for two years and participating in the Champions League playoffs last year.

"Kedah have a much better team than last season, and although JDT had to sit out of the Champions League last year due to the pandemic, we really hope the coronavirus situation eases and we can play in the AFC Cup."

Sailors midfielder Song Ui-young is also eagerly anticipating the brief reunion with Aidil and another former teammate M. Anumanthan, who is also with Kedah.

The 27-year-old South Korean said: "Anu is one of my best friends and this will be a great contest between two of the best teams either side of the Causeway.

"Having been in Singapore for 10 years, I know this is not just another football match, but there's also a big international rivalry and one that I don't want to lose. We will be well prepared to fight for the three points."

Singapore's other representative in the AFC Cup are Geylang International, who are drawn into Group I alongside the Philippines' Kaya FC-Iloilo, Myanmar's Shan United or Ayeyawady United and Malaysia's Terengganu.

The AFC Cup Asean Zone matches will be played from June 22-28 in a single-match, round-robin format at a centralised venue to be decided at a later date.

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