(Zulkiffli Hassim 31)

For the second gameweek in a row, S.League teams Balestier Khalsa and Tampines Rovers stayed unbeaten in the AFC Cup, indicating that local football is on the up.
In fact, they beat Kitchee SC and Selangor 1-0, earning crucial wins against teams widely regarded as the best in Group F and E respectively.

Both teams also rose to the top of their respective tables, putting them in a good position to fly Singapore’s flag in the knockout rounds for the first time since Home United made the last 16 in 2012.

While five-time S.League champions Tampines are bankrolled by lawyer Krishna Ramachandra and sponsors Komoco Motors, Balestier are a relatively smaller side who are playing in the AFC Cup for only the second time.

This made their victory over the Hong Kong Premier League champions – the first time an S.League team have beaten Kitchee in nine attempts since SAFFC won 2-0 in April 2008 – all the more remarkable.

Last night, at the Jalan Besar Stadium, the Tigers proved that there is more to football than just possession as they scored with their only effort on goal in the first half when Zulkiffli Hassim tapped in Fadhil Noh’s cross from the right in the 31st minute.

They allowed Kitchee, dubbed Hong Kong’s Barca, to tiki taka with their short passes on the artificial pitch, preferring to wait for the inevitable lapse of concentration before pouncing.

After succeeding once, they nearly repeated the trick eight minutes later when the hardworking Miroslav Kristic won a penalty, but the hard-lucked striker’s spot-kick was saved by Wang Zhenpeng.

Kitchee poured forward and recorded more than 15 shots and almost 10 corners but could not find a way past Zaiful Nizam.

Kitchee SC coach Alex Chu bemoaned the absence of his injured imports – centre back Recio and winger Jordi Tarres – as well as the temperature and fixture schedule.
But noting that Kitchee also fielded naturalised players like Ghana-born winger Christian Annan and Hirokane Harima of Japanese descent, Balestier Khalsa coach Marko

Kraljevic would have none of it, and said: “What do you want me to do? We also have injuries and played with only two imports, this is football.

“I expect us to give every team a tough fight, and we want to make it to the next round. “The S.League is a good and competitive league which some people don’t give enough respect to. There are many good teams and good players who have improved.

“Last year, we lost to eventual champions Johor Darul Ta’zim by a stoppage-time goal here and conceded only after 75 minutes away. “We are a better team than last season because we now have more experienced players like Jamil Ali and Syafiq Zainal compared to last year when I sometimes had to play four Prime League players.”

BALESTIER KHALSA: Zaiful Nizam, Fadli Kamis, Sheikh Abdul Hadi, Emir Lotinac, Hanafi Salleh, Fadhil Noh (Syafiq Zainal 56), Gary Loo (Jamil Ali 58), Shah Hirul (Hazzuwan Halim 76), Fazli Ayob, Zulkiffli Hassim, Miroslav Kristic

KITCHEE SC: Wang Zhenpeng, Lo Kwan Yee, Kim Taemin, Li Ngau Hoi, Tong Kin Man, Sham Kwok Keung (Harima Hirokane 65), Ngan Lok Fung (Cheng Chin Lung 70), Huang Yang, Christian Annan (Law Tsz Chun 74), Rufino, Lam Ka Wai

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