Kuala Lumpur City’s most important game of the season could yet be the most fulfilling when the City Boys rock up against Tampines Rovers of Singapore in the final AFC Cup Group H match in Cheras on Thursday.
While some say the pressure is on the Malaysia Cup champions Kuala Lumpur to get the three goals and the three points to finish top of Group H to advance to the knockout stage, coach Bojan Hodak believes this is a game to be savoured.
It’s not every day Kuala Lumpur suits up for an international club game, albeit with much riding on the result. This is the type of game professional players live to play.
“Just go out and play your best game and if you perform well the result will come,” Hodak told his players. “Results will always come if you work hard. Every game is a must-win in professional football, there is no easy game. If We win, we can go through and go far, so there is no real pressure.”
Little will change in the way Kuala Lumpur approaches this game, and Hodak’s plan is a simple one.
“We always play attacking football, the only thing is whether the strikers can score or not,” said Hodak, mindful that Kuala Lumpur did not score in the last two matches against Terengganu and PSM Makassar.
“Our first target is to win the game. If we can win with a better goal difference, then we can top the group. But Tampines have a say in the game so it’s not so easy even if everybody says we need to score many goals.
“We are not favourites because it will be a tough match. Second place might be enough to go through but we cannot influence other things. We just have to focus on our game, win our game and then we will see the situation with the other groups.”
WHO’S IN, WHO’S OUT
Hodak is set to ring the changes with goals a priority in this match. After not scoring in their last two games, you can expect Hodak to stress about getting an early goal.
However, with only four imports permitted to play at a time, Hodak must decide who among Kevin Mendoza, Giancarlo Gallifuoco, Kevin Koubemba, Paulo Josue and Morales to leave out. Goalkeeper Mendoza was sacrificed in the opening 0-0 draw with Makassar.
Winger J. Partiban is available again but left-back Nabil Hakim Bokhari remains sidelined with an injury while centre-back Nik Umar Nik Aziz änd Safee Sali have also been ruled out. Declan Lambert is also doubtful.
“Safee and Nik Umar have injuries and will definitely not play,” said Hodak. “Partiban is 50-50 because he has only just started to train so I will need to see if he is fit to play. Declan came out the last game feeling something in his hamstring, assuming is not a serious injury I will decide after today’s training.”
WHERE THE THREAT WILL COME FROM
Tampines struggled to cope with 10 men after Chris Van Huizen was sent off in the 31st minute of Monday’s 3-1 defeat to Makassar, picking up two yellow cards in the space of six minutes.
Up to that point, Tampines were leading 1-0 and looked likely winners with Makassar not able to find the range in front of goal. While Tampines held on until the half-time break, they collapsed after Makassar equalised early in the second half and were fortunate not to lose by a bigger margin as the Indonesian club spurned several chances near the end.
“Tampines are a serious team and were leading Makassar 1-0 before the red card. They have been playing in the AFC Cup for many years,” said Hodak.
“Every club has weak and strong points and we will try to look for that and find a way to score goals. They are dangerous with counter-attacks and they try to play possession football but that is not easy on this pitch. In Singapore, they play on artificial pitches but here they struggle on this field so that is our advantage.”
Boris Kopitovic is expected to lead the line for Tampines with back-up from Yasir Hanapi while ZZehrudin Mehmedovic, Kyoga Nakamura and Firdaus Kasman are expected to continue to man the midfield. There could be changes on the flanks and defence given that Tampines cannot afford to concede.
WHAT THE OPPOSITION SAID
Tampines coach Gavin Lee is clinging to the slight chance that his club can go through as the best group runners-up but that will require beating Kuala Lumpur by four goals and hope they have a better goal difference than the other two group runners-up.
“You know the math better than I do,” said Lee. “We are focused on what we can control, which is to give our 100 percent. We couldn’t do it against Makassar after going one man down early so let’s see how it unfolds after 90 minutes.”
“We are all very excited since it’s the last game in the group stage. When there is hope, we never give up and we are all very positive. We can’t wait for tomorrow at 8pm.”
Lee said there is nothing he needs to tell his players since they are aware of the task ahead.
“I have no special message to give the players, they are more intelligent than me and they are clear of the situation,” said Lee. “It’s an opportunity that we have over here, the fire is already burning and I don’t have to say more. I just have to calm their heads, get the game plan right and let them execute it tomorrow night.
A 3-0 win for Kuala Lumpur will see them top the group and advance to the next stage. Anything less means Makassar wins the group and leaves Kuala Lumpur’s fate in the balance and riding on the result of Group I match between Viettel and Hougang United. A draw or defeat eliminates Kuala Lumpur.
Tampines required a four-goal win and hope that their Singaporean rivals Hougang lose to squeeze through as the best runners-up though they would have to keep an eye on what happens in Group G, where there is a possibility of a three-way tie for top spot.
Assuming that Kuala Lumpur wins Group H, and:
i. If Makassar takes the best runners-up spot, KL will meet the Group G winners (Visakha/Kedah/Bali United) in the Asean Zone semi-finals at home
ii. If the Group I runners-up advance, KL will meet the Group I winners (Viettel/Hougang) in the Asean Zone semi-finals away
iii. If the Group G runners-up advance, KL will meet the Group G runners-up (Visakha/Kedah/Bali United) in the Asean Zone semi-finals at home
If KL advances as the best runners-up, KL will meet the Group I winners in the Asean Zone semi-finals away.
1. Kuala Lumpur have not lost to a Singapore club in international competition – winning twice with one draw in three meetings with Tiong Bharu, Balestier United and Geylang International between1987 and 1989
2. Kuala Lumpur won the Asean Club Championship twice in 1987 and 1989 and will be seeking to win the Asean Zone of the AFC Cup although there is no trophy for the winner this time
3. Kuala Lumpur has scored 48 goals in Asian club competitions and needs two more to reach 50
4. L. Suresh was the last player to score for Kuala Lumpur in Asian club football, against Telephone Organisation of Thailand on 26 November 1994. Kuala Lumpur lost 3-2 in the quarter-final, second leg after extra-time in Cheras.
5. This season’s AFC Cup winners will get a spot in the 2023-24 AFC Champions League playoff round
6. The final of this season’s AFC Cup will be held at the venue of the team from the East after Bahrain hosted last year’s final