Home United and Ceres Negros meet on Wednesday night in the first leg of their AFC Cup zonal final at the Jalan Besar Stadium in Singapore.
Home, who were scoring and winning for fun earlier in the season, have hit a sticky patch of late, winning just two of their last seven games in all competition, although coach Aidil Sharin is not worried by his team’s recent form.
”We reached the final because we fought… together as a team and, tomorrow, we have to do the same,” he said.
The Protectors are boosted by the availability of experienced goalkeeper Hassan Sunny, who needed 13 stitches to a head wound picked up in a domestic match last week, while key defender Irfan Fandi has recovered from memory loss suffered in the same game. Both have been cleared to play by the team doctor.
Influential midfielder Song Ui Yong, however, is unlikely to play as he continues to recover from a knee ligament injury.
Song is a big doubt.
Given Ceres’ strong home record (they are unbeaten in 18 home matches), Sharin is keen to earn an advantage before next week’s second leg in Bacolod.
“I have to take one game at a time but the first game is especially important. We have to get the result at home to motivate the players and the team,” he said.
“If we don’t get the result at home, we will be under pressure and find it difficult to recover as Ceres are always good at their ground. But, with skill and teamwork, we can beat them.”
Ceres have no major injury worries, although coach Risto Vidakovic said star striker Bienvenido Maranon may not start after suffering a calf injury last week. The Busmen’s ranks have also been bolstered by the additions of former Bundesliga star Stephan Schrock and Iranian Filipino Omid Nazari.
Like his Home counterpart, Vidakovic is also wary of the importance of the first leg.
“We reached the final because we fought and played as a team against strong teams. We have to do the same to get a good result for us to have control when we play at home,” said Vidakovic.
With both teams having scored a hatful of goals in the group and knockout stages, fans will be expecting lots of action, although Vidakovic said he will not be focussing only on stopping prolific Home striker Stipe Plazibat.
“When I watch (an opponent) I analyse the whole team,” said Vidakovic. “Home are a very compact team, and tactically very good.
“(Goalscorers) are important in a team, of course, but I think they have other very good players, so we have to respect the whole team.”
Road to the Zonal Final:
Ceres only qualified from their group after edging Hanoi FC on goal difference thanks to a 4-2 win over Singapore’s Tampines Rovers in their final game.
Their away form up until then had been patchy, a draw at Hanoi in their Group G opener was followed by a 3-0 hiding in Malaysia at the hands of Felda United.
Their home form was much better, with big victories over Tampines (5-0) and Hanoi (6-2) and a 0-0 draw with Felda.
In the zonal semi, Ceres pulled off a shock by beating 2015 AFC Cup winners JDT over two legs, although they needed a controversial injury time penalty to secure an 5-5 aggregate win on away goals after losing the first leg in Malaysia 3-2.
Home started in Group H with a lacklustre 1-0 loss to Yadanarbon in Myanmar, before securing a vital 3-2 comeback win at home against a talented Than Quang Ninh side.
They completed the double over the Vietnamese with a huge 5-4 win in Hanoi before rounding off the group with a comfortable 4-1 victory over Yadanarbon.
Home were also the beneficiaries of some late drama as they saw off Global FC in the semi-final, Stipe Plazibat’s two late goals at the Jalan Besar Stadium (including an injury time free kick) taking the Protectors through 5-4 on aggregate after a 2-2 draw in the first leg.
With both teams packed full of attacking talent, goals are guaranteed, but given the importance of this game, defenders will also have to shine.
Home United to earn a narrow 2-1 win.