High hurdles for Tampines in Champions League debut

Tampines Rovers players in training last year. They will play their AFC Champions League group stage matches in a centralised location.
Tampines Rovers players in training last year. They will play their AFC Champions League group stage matches in a centralised location.ST FILE PHOTO

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 side will take on South Korean champions and two-time AFC Champions League winners (2006 and 2016) Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, J-League runners up and 2008 AFC 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 an as yet undetermined centralised venue.

After watching the draw in Kuala Lumpur online yesterday, 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 92 too. All we can promise is we will do our best."

Despite uncertainty over their overseas commitment owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, he 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."

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 skipper Hariss Harun, whose Malaysian side will play in Group G, and Irfan Fandi, who is set to make his Champions League debut with Thai side BG Pathum in Group F.

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 Sharin.

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 a team from the Asean zone play-off.

Aidil said: "I'm happy with the grouping because the Sailors and Saigon are good teams.

"Kedah have a much better team than last season, and we really hope the coronavirus situation eases and we can play in the AFC Cup."

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

The 27-year-old South Korean is well aware of the "big international rivalry", adding: "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."

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

The AFC Cup Asean zone group 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2021, with the headline 'High hurdles for Tampines in Champions League debut'. Subscribe