Resurgent Warriors FC have the chance to win five successive games in a season for the first time since September 2011 when they visit Balestier Khalsa at Toa Payoh Stadium on Sunday evening in the Singapore Premier League (SPL).
How things can change quickly in football. Just two and a half months ago, the Warriors were still languishing second from bottom after failing to win their first 10 matches.
A 2-0 home win over Hougang United proved to be the catalyst in turning their season around as they won three in a row to climb up the table, before a run of three straight defeats.
Mirko Grabovac’s men did not waver though as they put together four successive wins – the latest being a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Tampines Rovers in midweek – to lift themselves to fifth in the SPL table.
This is their best run of form since April 2015 – the previous time when they won four straight league games – and it has given them a fighting chance of finishing in the top four for the first time since claiming their ninth title in 2014.
The Warriors are now breathing down the necks of fourth-placed Brunei DPMM, just a point behind albeit having played a game more.
While the good run of form has come too late for them to be in contention of qualifying for the AFC Cup, versatile midfielder Ho Wai Loon believes it bodes well for his side in the upcoming RHB Singapore Cup campaign.
The Warriors are paired with DPMM in the tournament’s two-legged quarter-finals, with the first leg scheduled at Jalan Besar Stadium next Thursday before the second leg which is to be played at Choa Chu Kang Stadium on Wednesday, September 19.
“At the start of the season, there’re a lot of changes in formations due to injuries. But since the second round started, we have been faring better,” said Ho, who turns 25 on August 20.
“The credit goes to Coach Mirko – he’s always telling us players to believe in ourselves and trust our potential. That’s why we’re always enjoying on the pitch now. You can see how much the players want to win, especially against Tampines… giving our 110% on the pitch and showing never-say-die attitude.
“Considering how we started the season, a top-four finish in the league would be decent and we cannot ask for more. Hopefully we’ll do well in the Cup as well – who knows we may even win it?”
The Warriors now have a chance to achieve something which they have not done since 2011 – winning five straight games in a season.
However it is easier said than done as they face up to a gritty Balestier side, which has won two on the trot and lost once in their last six outings.
The Tigers have already exceeded their 2017 tally of 19 points by six and could yet still overhaul the Warriors to take fifth spot.
“It’s always a tough one against Balestier,” warned Ho, who was on the books of Balestier from 2014 to 2016. “Their energy and fighting spirit is always there…. So we have to bring out our A-game again to get a win against them.”
TEAM NEWS: Balestier remain to be ravaged by injuries, with anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) victims Raihan Rahman and Sharin Majid ruled out of the season, while Croatian midfielder Vedran Mesec is still not available after a long injury lay-off
The good news for the Tigers is that midfielder Huzaifah Aziz is back from a one-game suspension.
As for the Warriors, Hafiz Sulaiman will be unavailable due to a one-game suspension while defensive midfielder Poh Yi Feng is also out after suffering a knee injury against Tampines. Forward Khairul Nizam is unlikely to play a part too after sustaining an injury in the same game.
The positive for them is that young wide man Nur Luqman has returned to training and could find himself on the bench for this one.
Balestier Khalsa FC: DDLWW
Warriors FC: LWWWW
23/06/18 Warriors 3-0 Balestier – Singapore Premier League
29/04/18 Balestier 2-1 Warriors – Singapore Premier League
17/08/17 Balestier 2-2 Warriors – Singapore Premier League
19/05/17 Warriors 1-0 Balestier – Singapore Premier League
28/02/17 Balestier 1-2 Warriors – Singapore Premier League
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR:
Shaqi Sulaiman (Balestier Khalsa FC)
An injury stemmed his development midway through, but Shaqi has since recovered and is reprising the early-season form that earned him rave reviews. The 19-year-old centre-back may still be raw, but is not afraid of putting in tenacious challenges when needed. That will come handy as he comes up against Warriors in-form hitman Jonathan Behe
Jonathan Behe (Warriors FC)
Who else but him? Time and again, Behe has proved to be the difference between victory and defeat for the Warriors. The 29-year-old French forward did not have the best of outings against Tampines, but still came up with the match-winning goal right at the death. The Balestier defence simply could not afford a lapse of concentration against a man with such predatory instincts.
WHAT ELSE THEY SAID:
Balestier coach Marko Kraljevic: “I’m good friends with Mirko, but for the 90 minutes we are just trying to win the game for our teams. It’s good that now we have Keegan (Linderboom) back… he’s our main man, who comes down to defend very well for us when it’s needed.
“As for Hazzuwan, we put him many times on the bench at the start of the season due to the Under-23 ruling. It’s tough to make an impact from the bench. But now he’s starting more and finding the confidence to play. I’m also happy for (mid-season) Zakir (Samsudin)… he’s working very hard and I’m proud that he scored in just his second game for us (in the 2-1 midweek win against Hougang United FC).
Warriors midfielder Ho Wai Loon: “Probably luck was really on our side against Tampines, but let’s not forget the efforts we put in the game to achieve the result.
“No doubt Behe has been scoring most of our goals (15 out of 25). But then again, football is not an individual sport. Every player plays a part whenever they are called upon… Everyone contributes something in order for the team to score and win games.”