League Cup Preview: Semi-finals

And then there were four as Albirex, Balestier, Woodlands and DPMM vie for a spot in the final after the first three fought their way successfully through penalty shootouts
Albirex Niigata (S) vs Balestier Khalsa (June 19, Wednesday, 7.30 pm, Jurong East Stadium)

2011 winners Albirex Niigata will look to reach the final again this year, but they first have to see off the challenge of Balestier Khalsa in the first semi-final of the StarHub League Cup.

Koichi Sugiyama vowed that his side would continue to improve after they saw off the challenge of Home United in the quarter-finals and on the basis of that showing, he has to hope that his players can put in a better showing against the Tigers.

The White Swans somehow survived a barrage of attacks from the Protectors over 120 minutes, who did everything right except for their failure to add a second goal to their first-half lead. The Japanese snuck back into the game through a penalty in the second period and held their nerve to triumph on spot-kicks, much to the relief of Sugiyama.

Balestier also had to go through the lottery of a shootout to book their semi-final berth after a see-saw game against Tampines Rovers. A last-gasp goal saw the match end 3-3 in full-time, with the sides unable to be separated at the end of extra time.

Coach Darren Stewart, who has stated his aim of winning the competition having won the Plate trophy last season, was a relieved man after his side emerged 4-3 victors from the spot to leave them in contention for a place in the final.

Albirex will count on tricky winger Bruno Castanheira and top-scorer Kazuki Sakamoto upfront, while veteran Hiroaki Hara has been an assured presence in goal. He will have to be in top form to deny Balestier striker Kim Min Ho, who will be ably backed by the industrious Park Kang Jin and the mercurial Qiu Li, while the likes of Zulkiffli Hassim can come on to great effect from the bench.

Tigers captain Paul Cunningham has been an inspirational figure this season and scored the winning penalty to send his side through. He will hope to skipper them to similar feats again here, although Yusiskandar Yusop is suspended. Albirex meanwhile should be able to utilise their full squad, although their incredible fitness means they seldom bring on substitutes.

Balestier's abrasive style has been likened to "rubgy" play in some quarters, but it has been effective and has resulted in a run of seven games without defeat in all competitions. On the other hand, Albirex's possession football is a stark contrast in playing patterns, as they employ their traditional patient build-up while effectively moving the ball about.

Supporters are in for a cracking game here, with Balestier looking to avenge their 1-0 defeat to Albirex earlier in their league meeting, a game that Stewart claimed his side played incredibly well only to lose.

Woodlands Wellington vs Brunei DPMM (June 20, Thursday, 7.30 pm, Woodlands Stadium)

Woodlands Wellington is the third team to have come through the dreaded shootout to secure their semi-final spot, and they face the only side not to have needed the drama of penalties in Brunei DPMM in the second tie here.

Rams coach Salim Moin claimed that a perfect game-plan and a perfect execution of that plan by his players, coupled with their strong mentality, helped them to victory after they edged Geylang International 4-1 on spot-kicks following a 0-0 draw.

They will need more of that against holders DPMM, as well as for number 1 Yazid Yasin to continue his splendid form. The former Singapore international saved two penalties and made top saves during the game proper to help his side prevail, and at 33 is still one of the best around in his position.

The 2007 champions will have to do without Shahril Alias after the defender was sent off for two bookable offences against Geylang. That might see Taufiq Rahmat come in on the left side of defence, with Rosman Sulaiman shifted to fill the void in the centre, as they rely on Korean duo Chang Jo Yoon and Moon Soon Ho to do the damage upfront.

Meanwhile, Vjeran Simunic's men annihilated Tanjong Pagar United in their semi-final in a stunning 5-2 comeback, after falling two goals behind in the first half.

They emerged a different side from the dressing room, with Lithuanian international Arturas Rimkevicius marking his debut with two goals. The 30-year-old striker boasts impressive credentials, having broken a 56-year old record for most goals scored in a single season (28) in the Lithuanian top division, A Lyga, this year after netting 35 times for FK Šiauliai and FK Ekranas; he bagged a total of 41 in all competitions.

Rimkevicius looks to have struck up an instant rapport with fellow forward Joao Moreira, who was also instrumental in the fightback as he banged in a hat-trick. The Portuguese is the team's top-scorer, and his partnership with his new compatriot could prove to be too much for the Rams to handle.

The Wasps will have to do without defender Sairol Sahari after he was dismissed for two yellow cards against the Jaguars, and a repeat of their 1-0 league win over the same opponents back in March will do just fine for the defending champions.

DPMM will go into this game as the favorites and rightly so, but the Rams could spring a surprise on home soil if Salim can devise a plan to deal with the physicality of Brunei's only professional football club.