Tigers edge White Swans to reach League Cup final
Park Kang Jin's early strike gave his side a slender but deserved victory over their Japanese opponents as they made their first major final
By Paul Green
Balestier Khalsa proved deserving winners of Monday night’s StarHub League Cup semi-final against Albirex Niigata at Jurong East Stadium, their lone 12th-minute goal enough to send them into the final on Saturday.
There was no questioning the Tigers’ commitment to the cause. Even without seven senior players, either injured, suspended or, in the case of Qiu Li, on international duty, coach Darren Stewart was able to field a highly combative and competitive team against the White Swans.
It was indeed a pugnacious start by Stewart’s side, who camped in the Albirex half from the opening whistle. The home side were pinned back in their own half for the first five minutes and never got over the half-way line, as the visitors pressed them solidly without letting up.
Kim Min Ho even got in a shot after only four minutes that flew just wide, after the impressive Syed Thaha had pushed hard down the left flank and then sent over a telling cross.
Thaha was again in the thick of things in the eighth minute, his cross this time finding Ruhaizad Ismail, who sized up a shot that Albirex goalkeeper Hiroaki Hara did well to hold onto.
With Balestier clearly in the ascendancy, the hosts took some time to settle and when they finally managed to cross into their opponents’ half, their playmakers and forwards seemed anxious to test Balestier custodian Zaiful Nizam from any range they could muster.
Kazuki Sakamoto, who had been prominent among the leading scorers in the early stages of the season, was the first to let fly from distance in the ninth minute, but he was well off target.
Balestier were keen to apply the pressure as long as they could and captain Paul Cunningham, assigned the role of striker once again, ran onto Zulkifli Hassim’s lob into the box and forced Hara to save at close range.
The only goal of the game arrived after 12 minutes when Poh Yi Feng did well to find some space down the left before delivering a low through pass to Park Kang Jin out on the right.
The Korean midfielder did not have an easy angle to work with but his low, coolly-measured shot found its way past Hara and into the bottom left corner of the net.
Time and again Albirex players resorted to taking pot-shots from well outside the penalty area, but all to no avail.
They did threaten as the game moved into the final 20 minutes, but a sharper focus by the Balestier defenders meant that hesitation on the part of the Albirex players converging in the six-yard box on a well-delivered cross from Bruno Castanheira was to prove unproductive, just when it seemed extra-time might be forced.
Zaiful was sound all evening and when he clung onto a late header from Albirex defender Kento Fukuda, it meant that his team’s 90-plus minutes of work had not been in vain. Balestier were indeed worthy winners.
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