Darren Stewart confident about strength of Balestier Khalsa squad

After retaining the bulk of the squad from last season and bringing in three astute acquisitions, the Australian coach has expressed optimism ahead of the 2013 S.League season
By Kenneth Tan

One took a touch before unleashing a thunderbolt from a full 30-yards out, the other sized-up his options before coolly curling past the goalkeeper from a similar distance - that was what Qiu Li and Park Kang Jin did respectively in Balestier Khalsa's 2-1 win against Harimau Muda B in a friendly.

If those are signs of things to come, Balestier Khalsa fans are in for a treat for the upcoming season.

The dynamic duo showed signs of telepathic understanding during the hour or so they were on the pitch together, with Qiu displaying superb hold-up play upfront in order for Park to pull the strings in midfield.

Along with former Gombak United centreback Obadin Aikhena and goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam, the Singaporean attacker is a new acquisition for the Tigers and coach Darren Stewart is clearly satisfied with his captures.

“They’re absolutely superb players, not just in the game. Qiu Li showed his class with that goal and he’s exactly what we need in this team," the Australian said.

Captain Paul Cunningham was a notable absentee as he is recovering from surgery at the end of last season, but Stewart is confident that his defensive lynchpin will be fit to start the first game of the season and forge a dream partnership with Obadin at the back.

“He’s alright, we just wanted to rest him longer,” he explained. “What many people forgot was that he played in pain for the whole of last year. He hurt himself in pre-season and didn’t train, but was still unable to complete games.

"It’s a massive ask for him to come back after his operation but he’ll be ready for the start of the season.

"He and Gab (Obadin) are two proven players and I’m sure they’ll play well together given Gab’s style."

Stewart's side is now the only remaining S.League club without a fifth foreigner, but he is unperturbed by it.

“Yeah we’re still looking for that player, let’s see what happens. If we get one it’ll be good, or else there’s no problem if we don’t," the 46-year-old claimed.

So far, the Tigers have registered two wins and one defeat in their pre-season matches, a 2-0 win over Courts Young Lions, a 3-0 loss to Woodlands Wellington and this latest 2-1 win over Harimau Muda B, but Stewart refused to assess those results.

“There’s nothing to read into these games, last year we lost our first three pre-season games [and managed to finish sixth in the league],” he concluded.

Since then, Balestier have gone on to beat Hougang United 2-1 before they fell to a 3-0 defeat against Albirex Niigata (S) in two subsequent friendlies.

Balestier will start their season with a clash against Tanjong Pagar United on February 22 in a 'LIVE' game at the Jalan Besar Stadium, with kick-off scheduled at 7.45p.m.