Sheikh Abdul Hadi: Don’t see why Balestier cannot challenge for second spot

Balestier Khalsa will seek to continue their pursuit of second spot in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) on Sunday when they take on troubled Hougang United at the Toa Payoh Stadium.

A poor start to the season for Hougang – who have yet to record a win after 10 games played – meant that the SPL saw its first coaching casualty after Philippe Aw was dismissed from his job last Sunday.

With just three draws and seven defeats, the Cheetahs are rooted to the bottom of the standings and are six points behind second-bottom team Wrriors FC. They have also scored the least goals in the league – finding the net only seven times – and their goal difference of minus 14 is the joint-worst alongside Geylang International.

The stats suggest that the team is in disarray, but midfielder Fabian Kwok is backing the team to find their feet soon.

“The players are all very hungry for our first win … we are as eager as before to try and grab all three points against Balestier this Sunday,” he said.

“We have to be confident to play to our abilities and take the game to Balestier. Our players are a talented bunch with lots of potential. Once unlocked, I believe more results will come our way.”

On Aw’s dismissal, Kwok, who is also vice-captain of Hougang, empathised with his former coach, saying it is “tough to be the one taking the hit with such results coming our way.”

“The turnover of coaching appointments are quick so it goes to show us players as well to cherish every moment we have in football,” he added.

Assistant coach Clement Teo will be taking over on a temporary basis until Hougang find a suitable replacement for Aw. His first task at hand – taking on Balestier – will not be an easy one, however.

The Tigers have been somewhat impressive so far this year and are currently third in the league standings. With five wins so far this season, they have already matched the number of victories they had last year, when they finished seventh.

They have also not gone more than two matches without a win this year. A huge part of that improvement is down to having a “family spirit” within the team, according to centre-back Sheikh Abdul Hadi.

The good results has Hadi believing the team can mount a challenge for the second spot, which Tampines currently hold.

“If we continue to work hard as a team, consistently get good results and with a bit of luck, I don’t see why we can’t challenge the second spot,” the 26-year-old said.

But first, Hadi wants the team to focus on the match on Sunday, especially given the changes that have taken place at Hougang.

“I think (Hougang) will face us with new spirit, new fire to impress their new coach. It is always a challenge to play against a team which is finding their first win and I’m sure they will be fighting for it this weekend.

“But at the end of the day, we have to approach the game like any of the other games in the season – our focus should always be on ourselves, to stick to our game plan, work hard and get the three points.”

Team News:

Balestier will continue to miss midfielder Raihan Rahman, who is out for the rest of the season, as well as defenders Shaqi Sulaiman and Sharin Majid.

Hougang will welcome back Kwok from suspension and is likely to have a full squad available.

Form Guide:

Balestier: WLLWL

Hougang: LLLLL

Keep an eye out for:

Balestier: Vedran Mesec

The attacking midfielder has not shone as much as fellow import Keegan Linderboom, but he is slowly getting into his groove. Against the Young Lions, Mesec helped the team to settle down in what was a scrappy game. He also created the team’s second goal by outjumping three defenders to nod on a free-kick for an unmarked Akbar Shah to score – after he was pushed upfront when Linderboom was subbed off.

Hougang: Iqbal Hussain

Iqbal is Hougang’s top scorer, albeit with just three goals, but the attacker is fully capable of causing trouble for any defence on his day. While this season hasn’t been the best for his team, he has matched his goal tally from 2017, and is just one goal away from matching his best ever tally of four goals in a season – and the Cheetahs will certainly be hoping for him to step up on Sunday.

What else they said:

Balestier defender Hadi: “Compared to last season, I think we started this season stronger and that has contributed to us to continue to be eager and hungry for more. The coach (Marko Kraljevic) has always believed in us and always never satisfied even when we win. He always thinks there’s always room for improvement. He’s always pushed us to never stay in our comfort zone. And it has rubbed into the players and we always pushed and demand more from each other, not forgetting to always look after and take care of each other.

“Our captain Zaiful (Nizam) has also always implemented the “family spirit” and always remind that we are one not just a team, but more of a family. So we always go in the game with the family spirit, and always wanting to improve from our previous game.”

Hougang midfielder Kwok: “Each coach have their unique characteristics. Every one of them have their own pros and cons. Looking on the bright side, Clement has been with us since the start of the year so he knows us players. We players have to keep an open mind and work together towards a common goal which is to win games for Hougang United.”