MY CLUB IS IN THE ASIAN CHAMPIONS LEAGUE!

An Article by Brendon Tan

Musings from a Tampines Rovers fan on the club’s first-ever foray into the group stages of the Asian Champions League.

27th January 2021 – that is the magic date.

As of writing this, we are less than a week to the 2021 Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) draw which is happening on the 27th of January 2021 at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Just across the Causeway, in neighbouring Singapore, local football fans and Tampines diehards will be glued to their screens as the result of the draw are announced.

One of these diehards who will be watching will be me.

For the 40th time, the continent’s biggest prize in club football will be up for grabs. The region’s best will find out on that very day which group they will be in and what teams they will be up against. Holders, Ulsan Hyundai, with two ACL titles under their belt, will be hoping to defend their crown after beating Iran’s Persepolis 2-1 at the finals of the 2020 ACL.

This year’s tournament will be a special one. Not only is it the first time the ACL will have 40 teams instead of the usual 32, but it will also feature Singapore’s Tampines Rovers Football Club (TRFC) for the first time in the group stages of the ACL.

As a Rovers fan, I could not be prouder of my team for such a historic achievement.

On December 2nd, we qualified for the ACL on the last day of the 2020 season, finishing as the top local team. (On December 2nd, we qualified for the ACL, after grinding out to an admittedly nerve wracking 1 – 1 draw with the Lion City Sailors.)

The last time a Singaporean side was involved in the group stages of the ACL was in 2010. Back then, the island’s most successful local side, Singapore Armed Forces Football Club (SAFFC) (now known as Warriors FC) took part but only managed to finish 3rd in their group.

Photo Credits: Brendon Tan Xing Ming 

Before that historic day, the Stags had never made it out of the qualifiers of the ACL and have spent most seasons playing in the group stages of the AFC Cup. For the uninitiated Eurosnobs, this is our region’s equivalent to the Europa League. Unfortunately, this was ultimately cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was frustrating for us fans as the Stags were actually doing incredibly well in the tournament. The ACL was also allowed to continue, which added salt to the wound.

But that is all in the past.

On the 27th of January, Tampines Rovers will know what teams it will be competing against in the Champions League.

The thought of East Asian giants like Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC, Guangzhou Evergrande and Gamba Osaka potentially playing at our local grounds, whether it be Jalan Besar, Bishan or the National Stadium (oh footballing gods please just let it be Our Tampines Hub (OTH) for once) is tantalising. However, this, unfortunately, seems very unlikely due to the current pandemic situation. The competition will very likely be played at a centralised venue.

It is also a great pity that we might actually not be able to go for any of the games live and might have to settle with simply watching it on the telly. 

Nonetheless, the thought that our local veterans Yasir Hanapi and Daniel Bennet might soon be asked to lead our Stags against teams such as J1 League Champion, Kawasaki Frontale, is extremely enticing!

There is the possibility that we might see our own Japanese Magician, Kyoga Nakamura, dribbling past his fellow countrymen with his usual brand of trickery. Or Madhu Mohana might be throwing his famous long balls into the box potentially against teams like Sydney FC or Pohang Steelers. All of these will no doubt be exciting sights to behold for us Stags fans.

It also delights me that our very own young prospects such as Shah Shahiran (who has been a revelation for the club so far) will get the chance to feature in the region’s biggest club tournament as well. The opportunity for our young Stags to play with Asia’s finest will no doubt provide invaluable experience for them and hopefully improve our team overall as well.

In fact, looking at the pre-season signings we have been doing, it seems likely that the Stags will be fielding a rather young albeit promising team for the upcoming season. I admit this initially left me a little bit concerned but nonetheless, I place my full faith in the team and of course, in Gavin Lee’s abilities as a coach. Trust the process, I say.

Photo Credits: Brendon Tan Xing Ming 

Regardless of whether we make it far in the competition, it brings me great joy just for me to be able to see my local team on the continent’s biggest stage!

With that, I am confident my Stags will be going all out for the win when the tournament officially begins next month.

COME ON YOU MIGHTY STAGS!

P.S. Also, TRFC in this year’s edition of Pro Evolution Soccer (PES)? You love to see it.

Featured Image Credits: Brendon Tan Xing Ming 

Other Articles You May Like!

Manchester United’s Return: The Reds Go Marching On…

An Article by Khertan Harshad Ramanan The Season It has been a rollercoaster of a season for Manchester United, the players, the manager and the fans. It was a dream start for United as they ruthlessly overcame Chelsea 4-0 on opening day which gave fans huge expectations. However, the score in that match did not […]

Bouncing Back: A Chat With Tampines Rovers No.1 Syazwan Buhari

In the past decade, two goalkeepers have dominated the national spotlight and have been used interchangeably. Don’t get me wrong, Izwan Mahbud and Hassan Sunny are great keepers. In fact, they are arguably Singapore’s greatest ever custodians in the past two decades. They have put in consistent performances for club and country over the years […]

One Last Hurrah!: Young Lions Shouldn’t Be Scrapped (Just Yet)

Where do I begin with the Young Lions? The club was formed in 2003 to provide some of the most talented Under-23 footballers with regular professional footballing experience. Besides having the chance to play together on a regular basis and maintaining team cohesion, the Young Lions project provided these players the opportunity to play against senior footballers and national team stalwarts. It was created with the primary goal of helping the national Under-23 team perform well in regional international tournaments like the SEA Games. However, the project has largely been a failure.

Jose Raymond recently wrote an article titled OPINION: Time to scrap the Young Lions, and truth be told, he makes excellent points. The Young Lions have not performed well in the SEA Games. That is in fact an understatement – their showings have been significantly poor. The national under-23 team “has not made the finals of the SEA Games final at all, and have been knocked out at the group stages in 2003, 2005, 2011, 2015, 2017 and 2019.”

I agree mostly with Mr. Raymond, but his article also got me thinking about ways we can salvage the current Young Lions side. Let’s be honest, it seems like that the Young Lions project would most likely continue. The FAS has invested too much in the project to let it go to waste. Instead of scrapping it, how then do we save this sinking ship? How do we materialize the FAS’s vision of the Young Lions becoming a platform for developing elite footballers for Singapore?

We first need to find out what issues exist, and there are two glaring problems that have plagued the club for a long time now – finding the perfect head coach for the club and improving the overall quality of youth players in Singapore. I think improving the quality of youth players in Singapore merits a separate article altogether. The Young Lions have not really had a brilliant coach that specializes in youth development and who also is really familiar with Singaporean football. For some reason, I couldn’t find a complete list of coaches who helmed the project. So I did a bit of archival research work. These are some of the Young Lions coaches:

List of Some Young Lions Coaches
No.Coach Years
1P N Sivaji2003
2Kim Poulsen2004
3Fandi Ahmad2005-2006
4V. Sundramoorthy2007-2010
5Robin Chitrakar2011-2012
6Aide Iskandar 2013-15
7Jürgen Raab2015
8Richard Tardy2016 (caretaker)
9Patrick Hesse2016-2017
10V. Selvaraj2017
11Richard Tardy2017 (caretaker)
12Vincent Subramaniam2017
13Fandi Ahmad2018-2019
14Nazir Nasir2020 – present
If there is any inaccurate information – do let me know

That being said, out of the lot, Fandi Ahmad and Kim Poulsen are arguably the most successful. Under Poulsen and then Fandi, the club finished 3rd in the 2004 and 2006 seasons respectively. These 3rd-place finishes are their highest ever finish to date. Other managers have been less successful, and, more often than not, the Young Lions find themselves at the bottom of the league. So, who would be the right candidate?

Gavin Lee could be a good fit for the Young Lions given his ability to bring the best out of youth players at Tampines Rovers. His youth-centric policy has turned Tampines Rovers into the Singaporean Ajax of sorts. However, just like Ajax, Gavin’s Tampines side has done relatively well because he can successfully blood in exciting prospects around more senior heads. Yet, Gavin has to be given due credit because he believes in developing young players into first-team regulars.

Amirul Adli, Joel Chew, Shah Syahiran, Ryaan Sanizal, and Syahrul Sazali have become significantly better players under his charge. It would be interesting to see the impact he would have on Iman Hakim and Marc Ryan Tan, who are both real wonderkids, this upcoming season. Boris Kopitović and Taufik Suparno are the only senior strikers at Tampines, and Marc would indeed find opportunities aplenty. He featured nine times for Young Lions in the brief 2020 campaign but never played a full 90 minutes before. His two starts (where he was hauled off midway through the second half) and seven substitute appearances add up to 252 minutes of professional play. Likewise, Iman Hakim has been stellar for Albirex, and under Gavin’s tutelage, he is sure to become even better. In any case, while a move to Young Lions might prove to be an exciting project worth undertaking, it would be a step down for Gavin. The man is destined for bigger projects outside of Singapore, and it is only a matter of time before we see him manage in bigger leagues overseas.

One name pops to mind – Lee Lim Saeng. The former Home United head coach is a revered figure in the local footballing landscape. He won the Singapore Cup with the Protectors and guided them to two runner-up positions during his 4-year spell with the club. The Korean has gone on to achieve spectacular feats since leaving Singapore’s shores. After leaving Home United in 2014, Lee went on to the Chinese Super League where he held head or assistant coaching positions at Shenzhen FC, Yanbian Funde, and Tianjin Teda between 2013 and 2018. Between 2018 and 2019, Lee was appointed as the Korean FA (KFA) technical director for the national Under-20 team. Suwon Samsung Bluewings swooped in for Lee in 2019, and he won the Korean FA Cup with them. He departed Suwon in 2020 and is currently engaging in an ad-hoc consultant role with the Korean FA.

The obvious question would then be why would someone like Lee be interested in the Young Lions project. That is an excellent question to ask. Given his current role as KFA consultant, it would appear that Lee is interested in the prospect of national team management. The Young Lions job would traditionally entail managing the national under-23 side for international fixtures and competitions. It would be interesting if Lee took up the Young Lions job and the national under-23 team position. Many local players that have had a chance to work under Lee know the impact he has on a team and how he can transform a player.

Some fans might be doubtful as to whether a new coach might help or not. Instead, they might argue that scrapping the Young Lions is the way forward in ensuring that each club is incentivised to train its youth players. Here’s the thing though, do each club truly have the facilities for youth development? I don’t believe so. Furthermore, there isn’t any club that is ready to join or return to the Singapore Premier League. While there are rumours that Warriors FC might rejoin this campaign, nothing has materialised thus far. There have been even talks that Albirex Niigata might have to sit out because of their inability to fill up their squad with players. If no team rejoins and Albirex pulls out, there will be only eight teams remaining in the league (7 if Brunei chooses to pull out). In such a scenario, perhaps it is impractical to scrap the Young Lions.

Nevertheless, the FAS should bring Lee into their set up – preferably as the Young Lions and National U-23 Head coach. The FAS needs to consistently update and improve their plans to develop Singapore football. With Lee’s current role in the KFA, his experience coaching in top-flight football across East Asia, and his familiarity with Singapore, he would become an important asset. I say give someone like Lee 3 years at Young Lions. Time is a crucial factor because it allows Lee to implement the changes he wishes to make. At the end of the three years, if nothing significant changes, then I guess the Young Lions should be permanently ended. Let’s give the project one last opportunity to yield some results.

Featured Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Other Posts You May Like

Re-evaluating the Under-23 Rule of the Singapore Premier League

I think change is mostly good. When an organization makes changes, it should be commended for actively making some positive change or at least intending to do so. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes made after some time. In this light, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) needs to assess […]

Why the Singapore Premier League should adopt a Franchise mode

While the national team has been relatively weak in recent years, Singaporeans are very much still football-crazy. From diligently watching Premier League matches to playing Futsal with their friends, football is not just a way of life for many Singaporeans, but it is almost a religion. Growing up, I would often bond with my friends […]

The Battle of Anfield Road

A preview of the biggest match of the Premier League season… Well, kind of a big game coming up this weekend, then. On Sunday, top of the league Manchester United travel to Anfield to face their bitter rivals and the team directly behind them, second-placed Liverpool. This has been billed as must-see TV, a heavyweight […]

The Liverpool-Manchester United Aftermath

Bit of a damp squib of a match…

Well, that did not live up to the hype and expectation.

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United. The points are shared at Anfield, and the match that was billed as the match of the season did not end up being the best match of the weekend (thanks for picking up the slack, Spanish Super Cup).

So, what happened? Why did it happen? Who will be happier? And how did the reality of this match differ from my predictions?

United and Liverpool’s formations were not all massively different from what I predicted. United did end up starting Lindelöf and Martial instead of Bailly and Cavani, and, for the most part, it was the correct decision. Lindelöf played well, only slipping up a few times but to no punishment. Martial was not great, but the ability for United to bring on Cavani in the second half to attack a tired Liverpool defense did help them get the opportunities that could have led to the decisive goal, and that may not have been the case had Cavani started from the beginning. Their four man midfield did help frustrate the Liverpool team and give them more defensive solidity; using that diamond was the correct decision from Ole Gunnar Solskjær. For Liverpool, they did end up starting Henderson in defense instead of Rhys Williams, choosing to then play a midfield three of Thiago, Gini Wijnaldum, and Xherdan Shaqiri. It ended up not costing them, as Henderson did a sufficient job alongside Fabinho, who was fantastic, and the midfield did enough to limit Bruno Fernandes for most of the match despite neither Henderson nor Fabinho being in that defensive midfield role. Ultimately, I feel a bit proud having my predicted team be that close to the reality.

United’s strategy for the match was to defend first, hitting Liverpool on the counter when their midfield and fullbacks were committed up the pitch and leaving space behind them. United surrendered possession to Liverpool, only having the ball for 34% of the match and completing a little more than half of the total passes compared to their opponents. It would not be wrong to say that United were playing it safe, and given the circumstances, it was the right way to approach this game. Despite United being top of the league, the pressure was definitely on Liverpool. Having fallen off the top as the reigning champions and having struggled to score goals over the last few matches, Liverpool needed a statement result, especially since they were playing at home. United wanted to frustrate Liverpool, and they very clearly did.

United’s defensive shape worked so well not only because of the four man midfield, but also because the weakest part of their defense, the left side of the back four, shined. Before the match, I pointed out Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire as the weakest links of the United back four, being most susceptible to Liverpool attacks through Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold. In the actual match, Shaw and Maguire were fantastic. Shaw won his individual battle against Salah, and the Egyptian did not have any real impact on the game aside from a few half chances. Alexander-Arnold was also very limited on that right side, not putting in a successful cross for the whole 90 minutes. Maguire was phenomenal, United’s best player on the day, in my opinion. He could not put a foot wrong. He kept control over the defense, won the tackles he needed to, and not only did he not make a single noticeable error the whole match, he also made up for any mistakes made by Lindelöf. There are definitely issues with the Liverpool attack, but the United defense deserves all of the credit for limiting Liverpool’s usually potent front three. That back four, especially that left side, was the reason why United were able to get a point and had the chances to get all three points.

And in that point lies my sole criticism of Solskjær’s game plan. He set up United well to defend and not lose, and that deserves credit, but the game was also there to be won. United could have turned on the gas in the second half as Liverpool got more tired and more frustrated and gotten the goal they needed to win. To be fair, Ole did recognize this, and this is reflected in their substitutions, but I think Ole was too slow in making those changes to go for it. Cavani did not come on until the 61st minute, a move that was obvious and probably should have happened at least five to ten minutes sooner. Greenwood coming on was also a smart move to go for the win, but waiting until the 85th minute basically eliminated that chance. Had he come on with 15-20 minutes remaining, then I think he could have had a greater influence on the match while keeping United solid enough to maintain a scoreless draw at minimum. This is also a match where Donny van de Beek could have been an effective second half substitute, but he once again remained unused on the bench. Ole had the right idea, but I think he executed it too slowly. Had the substitutions come earlier, then United really could have found a way to win the game.

For Liverpool, this is undoubtedly a frustrating result, not just because of dropping points to a title rival, but you once again failed to score a goal. A three-match goalless run does not seem too crazy from an outsider view, but this is the longest Liverpool have gone without a goal in the Premier League since March 2005. With the downright insane amount of attacking talent in this team, even with injury to Diogo Jota, you would fancy them to score in basically every match they played. By the end of the match, the frustration was visible on the faces of Jürgen Klopp and the Liverpool players. The Reds do seem to be in a rough patch at the moment.

The team was not wildly crazy from the one I predicted, but the inclusion of Xherdan Shaqiri was a curious choice by Klopp. It was the Swiss dynamo’s first start for the Reds since December 2019, and while he had his moments, I am not sure it was the correct decision. In such a big match, I am not sure why he did not opt for a player like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Curtis Jones, who had both been closer to the starting XI throughout this season and were in better form compared to Shaqiri. With Klopp needing to use Thiago and Wijnaldum to protect the fullbacks when they ventured forward, being well aware of how deadly United can be on the counter, Shaqiri ended up being the sole true attacking player in the midfield at times, and this was a role he could not perform well in.

Thiago played well, and his passing ability was on full display when he got the opportunities to venture forward. Liverpool’s best attacking moves usually revolved around the Spaniard and his passing and movement. Thiago is a world-class talent who should have been on the ball more. The problem was that, as he was the most defensively positioned of the three midfielders, he did not often get the chances to venture forward. It would often be his responsibility to stay back when one of the fullbacks pushed up the pitch, and he would often have to stay back around Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba in order to limit how effective United could be on the counter. As a result, Liverpool seemed to lack any attacking cohesion and were not able to construct many quality goal-scoring chances. Liverpool had 66% possession and took 17 shots, but only three of them were on target and maybe one or two of those on-target shots were truly dangerous chances. Firmino and Salah especially were poor, and their fullbacks were seemingly playing in two minds the whole game, wanting to impact the attack while also being afraid of the United counter. This is why I originally said Liverpool should have played Henderson in midfield and Rhys Williams in defense. Henderson’s defensive ability allows him to cover for the fullbacks and defend potential Bruno/Pogba counters, and it allows Thiago, Liverpool’s most dangerous midfielder, to get on the ball more and have an influence on the attack.

This reflects poorly on Klopp, who, while starting with a very logical formation and game plan, did not seem able or willing to make the necessary changes when these issues became clear. The issues and limits in the Liverpool attack were clear by about the 55th-60th minute, if not earlier, and it was obvious Liverpool needed to make a change. Despite sending James Milner out to warm up at halftime, Klopp did not actually choose to make a substitution until the 76th minute, taking off Shaqiri for Curtis Jones. His final two substitutions, Divock Origi on for Firmino and Milner on for Wijnaldum, did not come until the 85th and 89th minutes, respectively, much too late to make a tangible difference on the match. It was clear Klopp needed to do something to free up Thiago, and bringing on Milner is a logical move in that regard, but not doing so until the end of the game is a bit baffling. Shaqiri and Firmino were both fairly ineffective in the match, and making substitutions for them would not have been crazy, but Klopp waited so long to do so for no real discernible reason.

Klopp handled his post-match press conference in the most Klopp way he could. Much like he did after their loss to Atlético Madrid in the Champions League, Klopp was frustrated by, or complained really, about United’s defensive set up. Complaining that the opponent did not make it easier for him is not anything new for Klopp, but this might be the most frustrating time to hear it because the necessary changes were so blatantly obvious. Of course United wanted to be more defensive and play on the counter. That is the most logical thing to do because several teams have shown in the past that it is the most effective way to beat any Jürgen Klopp team, but Klopp did nothing to be proactive and change his team’s fortunes even though he should frankly know what to expect from opposition by this point. Surely if he saw how many issues Thiago was causing the United defense, he would have made a move to push Henderson into midfield or bring on another midfielder for Shaqiri to allow Thiago to get forward. Surely a move to bring on a fourth midfielder, for either Firmino or Salah, would have helped Liverpool get control of the middle of the park, get Thiago forward, and allow the forwards to attack the space and the channels instead of continuously spamming crosses onto Harry Maguire’s forehead. This might be my Everton bias taking over, but the Klopp excuses are falling on deaf ears. Yes, the team has injury issues, and yes United were lined up very defensively, but the necessary changes were there to be made. This is still a match that Liverpool could have won. Liverpool dropped points in this match because the team and the manager were not good enough to earn all three points.

That is the inherent paradox of this game. Liverpool dominated possession, attempted and completed more passes, had more total shots, and had more attacking corners, but I at least felt that United were the better attacking side. Yes, a draw was a fair result on balance, but if there was to be a winner, United would have been the more just winner. Aside from less than a handful of genuine chances, Liverpool did not really look like they were going to score. United did not have much of the ball, but especially in the final 20-25 minutes, they looked much more likely to find a goal, and their chances were much better than Liverpool’s. The xG difference was 1.2-1.19 in favor of Liverpool, so the stats do back up a deserved draw. As a viewer, though, it just seemed more clear to me that United had the better goal-scoring chances, even if the stats do not back me up on that.

Regardless of chances or stats, the match ended in a draw. United remain top of the league, and Ole would have been the happier of the two managers leaving Anfield on Sunday evening. While United did not get a statement win, they did show that they do have the talent and pedigree needed to win the title this season, and Liverpool’s faults showed that there is clearly a title race. The happiest person with this result, however, was Pep Guardiola. Manchester City beat Crystal Palace 4-0 yesterday, which, combined with the Liverpool-United draw, took City up to second place, ahead of Liverpool and two points behind United with a game in hand. It was City’s fifth straight league win, with the team being unbeaten in all competitions dating back to late November. They look very good, in arguably the best form of any team in the league. If I was a betting man, I would fancy Man City as favorites to win the league right now. Leicester also leapfrogged Liverpool, being two points behind United and in third on goal difference. While I do not fancy their chances to win the league, they are very clearly in the race and could potentially do it. We knew we had a title race before this match, but this result has seemingly confirmed the scale of the race we are potentially looking at, and with only five points separating first and sixth, the race could potentially get even bigger.

Yes, it was a bit of a boring game. United did what they needed to do, and Liverpool were not able to react and change the game. While the game was boring, it did confirm that we are in for a very exciting title race this season. Buckle up, because it will likely be a bumpy and crazy ride to the finish line.

LATEST POSTS

Re-evaluating the Under-23 Rule of the Singapore Premier League

I think change is mostly good. When an organization makes changes, it should be commended for actively making some positive change or at least intending to do so. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes made after some time. In this light, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) needs to assess […]

On Moussa Dembélé’s Transfer to Atlético Madrid

Best for all involved? The first of Olympique Lyonnais’ Champions League heroes looks to be out the door, as young French striker Moussa Dembélé looks to be close to sealing a transfer to Spanish giants Atlético Madrid. As reported by Sky Sports’ transfer guru Fabrizio Romano, the deal will be a six-month loan deal with […]

Looking to 2021 Part 2: The Big Names to Watch

Looking at the big names that could take up the headlines this year… Welcome back to Part 2 of our 2021 preview series! Today, we are looking at the players who will likely be the center of attention this year for a variety of reasons. Most, if not all, of these players will be more […]

Captain Cambodia: The Thierry Bin Tale

If you are an ardent follower of Southeast Asian football or a Cambodian football fan, Thierry Chantha Bin is definitely not an unfamiliar name to you. The Cambodian superstar has been a talisman for both club and country over the years. National team captain on multiple occasions, Thierry is an icon in Cambodia. Yet, unlike […]

The Battle of Anfield Road

A preview of the biggest match of the Premier League season…

Well, kind of a big game coming up this weekend, then.

On Sunday, top of the league Manchester United travel to Anfield to face their bitter rivals and the team directly behind them, second-placed Liverpool. This has been billed as must-see TV, a heavyweight bout between two of the best teams in the league. This is the Ali-Frazier of the football season. It definitely is not hyperbole.

Last season, I wrote a preview article ahead of the title-deciding Der Klassiker in Germany, in which Bayern Munich defeated Borussia Dortmund 1-0 on their way to winning yet another league title. Despite it only being January, this game has a very similar feel to it, and I wanted to do something similar here. I will be going in depth into the match up, looking at both teams, their strengths and weaknesses, and the areas in which the match can be won.

Man United enter this match as probably the most in-form team in the Premier League, having not lost in the league since their 1-0 defeat to Arsenal on November 1st. This incredible run of form has seen United rise to the top of the league, a position they have not been in since 2013. Seeing them start the season struggling with the serious potential of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær losing his job but rising to this is quite unexpected, and it is a testament to the job Solskjær has done with this team and the performances of the players he has available. They will travel to Anfield this weekend looking to make a statement, reminding the rest of the country and the continent that Manchester United are contenders and a team to be taken seriously.

Things were not always smooth during that great league run, however, and this is where I have some concerns. While they have not lost in the league since November, that span also included European losses to PSG and RB Leipzig, which saw the Red Devils knocked out of the Champions League. It also included a 2-0 loss to Manchester City in the EFL Cup Semi-final. That league run also included difficult draws against Leicester City and Manchester City, the two arguably toughest opponents they played during that run. Much of their success came against mid-table or lower opposition, and do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with that. If you want to be a team contending for silverware, you have to win the games against inferior competition, which, especially in the league this year, is easier said than done. It does, however, cast some doubts as to whether this United team is really “for real” or not, as it does bare some similarities to the great run of form they went on when Solskjær came in as interim manager in 2018. It is entirely possible that this match against Liverpool acts as a reality check for this team. We will see how far this team has truly come under Solskjær and how far they still might need to go in order to return to true contention. But make no mistake, this is the biggest match United have played in since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. This is where we see what this United team really is.

Tactically, United have some different options when it comes to how to line up in this game. Solskjær has typically deployed a 4-2-3-1 in his time in Manchester, but they have also used a 4-1-2-1-2 and a 3-5-2 at different stages of the season and depending on the opposition they are facing. The tactics of the match will be crucial, as this big of a match will be a true tactical chess match, so how Ole chooses to set his team up will be important. I anticipate the midfield battle will be important, so I believe Ole will deploy his 4-1-2-1-2 in order to have a diamond in midfield, creating numerical supremacy in the middle of the park. With Nemanja Matić out injured, Scott McTominay and Fred will hold the places in midfield alongside Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. The midfield four will give United some stability and security, better allowing Pogba and Bruno to attack, knowing there will always be someone covering the back line. The pairing of Fred and McTominay itself is quite balanced as a defensive duo, with both able to get forward when needed but mainly allowing Fred to be the deeper-lying passer and McTominay to use his energy in the press to disrupt the opposition. The key players in this midfield will be McTominay and Pogba. While Pogba has been very good at times for United this season, we are never always sure which Pogba will show up when things matter the most. If he is able to be influential in the attack, then United will have a very good chance of leaving Anfield with all three points. McTominay will also be crucial for his energy in the press and his defensive contribution. If he is able to disrupt the Liverpool midfield and limit the influence that Thiago can have on the match, then United will be in good shape.

Now, this midfield might seem counter-productive against Liverpool in some respects, right? One of Liverpool’s strongest attacking tools are their fullbacks. Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are both very good attacking players who love to get up the pitch and can play very threatening crosses and give opposition defenses trouble. Certainly you would want to play wingers to try and pin both of them back in their defensive third, right? Well, that is true, but it is also something United can do in this formation. I imagine that in their press, United will want the two forwards to press out to the fullbacks when they get the ball, likely being joined by either Fernandes or whichever central midfielder is on that side. Scott McTominay’s energy in the press will be crucial in this regard, possibly leading to some chances to win the ball high up the pitch. The attacking potential of both midfielders could also force both fullbacks to think twice about pushing up the pitch. If Alexander-Arnold goes forward and Liverpool turn it over, then there is suddenly plenty of space behind him for Rashford and Pogba to attack. It is not the most ideal scenario, as the best way to counter attacking fullbacks is to force them to think about a dangerous winger that they have to mark, but it is something that can definitely work for United.

Elsewhere in the team, the four in midfield means United will only be able to deploy two in attack instead of three. Marcus Rashford is undroppable at this point, despite a poor performance against Burnley, but it will be Cavani partnering him up top. For one, Martial does appear to be injured and unavailable, which makes the choice for Ole slightly easier. In such a massive game, you need to go for the experience of Cavani over a younger player like Mason Greenwood. I also doubt United call on Daniel James, because while he is effective in the press, as he demonstrated against Leeds, he is just a non-factor in attack and gives Robertson more opportunities to attack up the pitch. Cavani also provides them with a more physical presence up top, able to contend with the individual battle against Fabinho and whomever partners the Brazilian while providing more of a target man presence that Fernandes and Rashford can play off of. In defense, I believe the partnership of Maguire and Bailly will continue. Eric Bailly has possibly been the most under-appreciated player for Man United this season, quietly stringing together several very solid performances and able to combine his impressive physical strength and pace with a solid reading of the game and an at least passable ability on the ball. Maguire’s tenure in Manchester has been often criticized, but he is truthfully having a good season, and he seems to be better with a more quick and physical center back next to him. Maguire-Bailly is definitely United’s best center back pairing, and I do not anticipate they will go with Victor Lindelöf. Should Ole choose to go with a back three, which I would not recommend, then the third center back will likely be Luke Shaw or Axel Tuanzebe, with both options being quicker and more mobile than the Swede.

The sort-of theme for this match, as many really close encounters tend to be, are individual battles. Specific areas on the pitch where United are weak are going to be targeted by Liverpool, and vice versa, and exploiting those weaknesses could be the difference between a win and a loss. United’s glaring weakness in this team is the left side of their defense. United’s left back selection is not quite ideal for them in this match up. While Alex Telles is a very good attacking fullback, he is not very good defensively and is prone to being caught out of position. Luke Shaw is not terrible, but he is not exactly good either. He is another player that is prone to being caught out of position, and he is not exactly a solid one-on-one defender either. Playing next to the left back is Harry Maguire, a solid center back but one that is not very mobile or very good at dealing with speed. And they will be going up against Mohamed Salah, maybe the best forward in the Premier League this season. No pressure, right?

Liverpool will likely find a lot of success attacking this left side of the United defense, and I imagine that much of their attack will focus on trying to exploit this weakness. I would not be surprised if Salah was a goalscorer in this match, or if Alexander-Arnold got an assist attacking down this side. To counteract this, United should utilize one of their defensive midfielders to help cover this wing. I imagine this 4-1-2-1-2 will look, more or less, like a 4-2-2-2 at several moments, especially when United are defending. With Fred and McTominay as the two deepest midfielders in that set up, United have the ability to use one of them to help Maguire and (likely) Shaw defend attacks down the left, while the other can be used to defend wherever needed. Again, it is not ideal, but it is probably the best solution for United to protect the weakest part of their defense.

Manchester United will likely line up in a 4-1-2-1-2, with their team being:

Now, let us talk about Liverpool. The reigning champions are coming into this match after a surprising run of poor form. After beating Tottenham 2-1 and smashing Crystal Palace 7-0, the Reds proceeded to draw with West Brom, draw with Newcastle, and lose to Southampton. It is this poor run that saw them surrender first place to United and allow Manchester City back within touching distance of the top, creating quite a serious potential title race in England. Jürgen Klopp will want a response from his team following the disappointment against Southampton, so I expect this to be a Liverpool performance that is as high-energy and ruthless as typical Klopp teams are.

Tactically, Klopp will likely play in his preferred 4-3-3 system, in which Liverpool were crowned champions of England and Europe in the past few years. Do not fix what is not broken, right? It makes a difficult decision quite simple, as it is hard to really predict how United will line up, as they are able to play in multiple different formations, as discussed before. While it could be difficult for Klopp to prepare for which United side he will face, it is still a given that he will want to play his game and dictate how the match will go. It is also the best pressing formation for Liverpool, and we all know how much Klopp loves his “gegenpressing”. In the event that United do go with a four in midfield, as I predicted, then Firmino would likely be tasked with dropping deeper at times, helping Liverpool transition the ball from midfield to attack. If Firmino’s movement is able to move around the United back line, then that will create opportunities for Mané and Salah to cut inside and score. This will also be the biggest test for Thiago in his time at Liverpool, as it will be on him to establish the tempo of the match. If United go with a four in midfield, Thiago’s passing ability, paired with Wijnaldum’s energy, will be needed to override the numerical disadvantage and make sure Liverpool are able to win that fight in defense and able to transition the ball from defense to attack without any serious issue. If Liverpool are able to press well, then they can counteract any disadvantage in midfield by being able to win the ball high up the pitch and attack an exposed United back four.

The biggest storyline of the season remains their injury problems. The incredible fortune that the Reds had last season when it comes to injuries to critical players has seemingly ran out. Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez both remain out for the duration of the season, and Diogo Jota is still a few weeks from returning to the first team. Joel Matip also picked up an injury against West Brom, and it remains doubtful that he is able to return for this match. This creates serious selection questions for a team that usually picks itself, and to a certain extent, still does in this game. Klopp will probably still play his 4-3-3. Mané, Salah, and Firmino all surely start. Wijnaldum and Thiago will both play in midfield. Henderson will play. The fullbacks will play. Fabinho will play. Alisson will play. Those are givens.

But it is the center of defense, and in defensive midfield, that provides the biggest selection and tactical questions. Fabinho will be one of the two center backs, as he has been since van Dijk’s injury, but who will play alongside him? It looks very unlikely that Matip will be fit for this match, as Klopp usually requires first team players returning from injury to have at least two training sessions before their return match and, as far as I know, Matip did not train today. In his place, they can start Henderson at center back, which did not work well at all against Southampton, or they could go with one of the very inexperienced but promising Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips. There are positives and negatives to both choices. On one hand, playing Henderson in defense gives you an experienced, veteran player in the back line that can go against a very experienced and deadly United attack. On the other hand, he was not that good against Southampton in that role, and playing him and Fabinho in defense takes away your two best defensive midfielders. On one hand, Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips are very talented and physically imposing center backs, with their respective 6’5″ and 6’3″ frames and tackling ability making them a more natural and useful fit in defense compared to Henderson. On the other hand, Williams and Phillips are very inexperienced players who can be prone to the rare error, and trusting a 19 year old kid like Williams in the heart of your defense in the biggest game of the season is a colossal risk.

I do ultimately believe that Rhys Williams will start alongside Fabinho, with Henderson playing just ahead of them in midfield. Williams is a talented player, and while it is still definitely a risk, I do think you cannot play Henderson in any position apart from midfield in this match. Going against a player as talented as Bruno Fernandes creates many difficult match up issues, and you need a physical and imposing presence in defensive midfield in order to limit the Portuguese’s influence on the match. In a perfect world, Liverpool would use Fabinho, who is one of the best defensive midfielders on the planet and has all of the traits and skills needed to be the world’s most ideal “Bruno stopper”, but the Brazilian has to start in defense. Because of this, Henderson must start in midfield, as you cannot take away your two best defensive midfielders when going against a midfield like United’s. Williams also provides more of a physical presence in defense, with that strength and height needed to help deal with Cavani. This will remain Liverpool’s main weakness, however. Just as Shaw and the left side of defense was the biggest piece to exploit in the United team, the center of defense is the weakest link in the Liverpool team. Should they play Henderson there again, then you are giving quite a bit of space and opportunity to Bruno Fernandes without a physical threat to stop him, or you are requiring Thiago to get out of his game and focus on Bruno. Should Williams start in defense, then you keep Henderson in midfield to deal with Bruno but are using a very inexperienced defender to go up against Cavani and Rashford. This is something that United can definitely exploit. Liverpool will need a career best performance from Williams to win this game, one that might turn him into a Liverpool cult hero if it happens.

Henderson will ultimately be the main key player. United’s attacking midfielders are the heartbeat of their attack, especially Bruno, but we have seen in the past how teams are able to take Bruno out of the game in order to limit what United can do going forward. This has mostly come from teams being very physical, almost man marking to an extent, with the Portuguese, and this will likely be Henderson’s job. If Liverpool’s captain plays well, then Liverpool will likely be successful. It will decide how strong Liverpool’s midfield and defense will be. If Henderson is not able to stop Bruno, then United should be able to have quite a bit of success in attack, and they could also overwhelm Liverpool in midfield as well.

Liverpool will likely line up in a 4-3-3, with their team being:

So, who wins? As I said before, this will likely come down to which team is able to control the midfield and exploit the weaknesses of their opponent. Based on past results, there are very good reasons to say either team would win or lose. United have played very well recently, but they have not had this serious of a test in quite a while. Liverpool have struggled recently, but they are only a month removed from very big wins against Tottenham and Crystal Palace.

Ultimately, I believe this will be a very big game for Mohamed Salah. That United left side is very vulnerable, and I expect the Egyptian to continue his fine form and get on the score sheet. I think Henderson will do enough to limit the United midfield, and Rhys Williams will do just enough to keep Liverpool from breaking. United are a very good team, but this will be a reality check for them. They are not quite there yet, and Liverpool are still the champions and arguably the best team in the league, even without key players.

Prediction:

Liverpool 2-1 Manchester United

LATEST POSTS

On Moussa Dembélé’s Transfer to Atlético Madrid

Best for all involved? The first of Olympique Lyonnais’ Champions League heroes looks to be out the door, as young French striker Moussa Dembélé looks to be close to sealing a transfer to Spanish giants Atlético Madrid. As reported by Sky Sports’ transfer guru Fabrizio Romano, the deal will be a six-month loan deal with […]

Re-evaluating the Under-23 Rule of the Singapore Premier League

I think change is mostly good. When an organization makes changes, it should be commended for actively making some positive change or at least intending to do so. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes made after some time. In this light, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) needs to assess […]

Looking to 2021 Part 4: Stories to Watch

The stories that will develop this year that you need to keep an eye on… Welcome back to the final part of our 2021 preview series. In this part, we will be looking at the big, overarching stories that look to dictate conversation in the football world this year. These are the things you need […]

Captain Cambodia: The Thierry Bin Tale

If you are an ardent follower of Southeast Asian football or a Cambodian football fan, Thierry Chantha Bin is definitely not an unfamiliar name to you. The Cambodian superstar has been a talisman for both club and country over the years. National team captain on multiple occasions, Thierry is an icon in Cambodia. Yet, unlike […]

Re-evaluating the Under-23 Rule of the Singapore Premier League

I think change is mostly good. When an organization makes changes, it should be commended for actively making some positive change or at least intending to do so. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes made after some time. In this light, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) needs to assess whether the current Under-23 ruling for local Singapore Premier League teams has indeed yielded substantial merits.

The Under-23 rule was first implemented in 2018 when the S.League was rebranded into the SPL. Two new and major rules were implemented that year. Firstly, each team could register no more than 6 players over the age of 30 in the squad. Secondly, and more importantly, each team had to sign a minimum of 6 under-23 players and start 3 of them in the first eleven for every fixture. That year also marked the end of the Prime League [the U-23 league]. Therefore, the U-23 ruling was intended to ensure that younger players had a chance to play for first-team football and develop their game.

This new rule was not some random effort by the FAS to shake up the league, but an initiative to tackle the ineffective youth system that plagued Singaporean football. In many regards, it was seen as an immediate response to the abysmal displays by the Singapore U-15, U-17, and U-22 teams in 2017. I remember how the National Under-15 team got thumped by Japan 11-0, and changes were definitely required. Yet, I don’t know if the solution to youth development lies in the new Under-23 rule. Even though the ruling has yielded some merits, they pale in comparison to the disadvantages it brings.

There have been merits to the implementation of the rule for sure. For one, we have seen the emergence of real hot prospects due to the U-23 rule that we may not have seen had it not been implemented. Saifullah Akbar, Arshad Shamim (both Lion City Sailors), Farhan Zulkifl (Hougang United), Shah Shahiran (Tampines Rovers), and Harith Kanadi (Geylang International) are examples of some of the hot prospects that have featured regularly.

Project 2034 can be a truly realistic goal for Singapore if there are changes to the current youth footballing set-up. The U-23 rule could be seen to help with this goal, since it would equip the youth footballers today who would probably become the core of the national team in 13 years. Still, I don’t think it is practical making it mandatory that three U-23 players start each fixture.

While many young stalwarts have shown that they can hold their own against the senior players, not every U-23 player is ready for weekly senior team football. The U-23 rule essentially rushes players into a bigger stage. Not every youth player is Khairin Nadim or Iman Hakim, and often players bloom later on in their careers. The return of the Prime League would help in this regard, or perhaps integration of U-23 teams into the National Football League Divisions is the solution so that younger players can play against more physical and older footballers.

The current U-23 measures are also rather impractical. For example, the under-23 ruling ridiculously requires that at least 3 players below the age of 23 be fielded in the first-half. The rules state that “if any Under-23 Player is substituted in the first half of the match, such player shall be replaced by another Under-23 Player, except in the case of an Under-23 player who is ordered off the field of play in the first half.” This particular rule gained attention during the 2020 Season restart, when Tanjong Pagar got penalized for their match against Geylang International when Syabil Hisham, a U-23 player, suffered an injury and was replaced by thirty-year-old Brazilian forward Luiz Junior in the 45th minute of the first half. Geylang had won the match 1-0, but the infringement by Tanjong Pagar meant that the Eagles were awarded a 3-0 victory instead. Like I said earlier, the rule makes little sense.

Most importantly, the U-23 rule forces senior players to prematurely end their careers. Many SPL teams sign more than the minimum 6 players, since they need to start 3 each match and to ensure that there are enough players were there to be any injuries. With 4 foreign players probably starting each game and three U-23 players, only 4 local players above the age of 23 are fielded. Besides limited opportunities to play, there are so few spots on teams because clubs stack their teams with Under-23 players. A number of professional footballers are currently unable to find a club largely because of the ruling. Some high-profile names include Ignatius Ang, R Aaravin, Zulkifli Hashim, Suria Prakash, Yeo Hao Ngee, and Zulfadhmi Suzliman are just a few of those experienced players without a club at the moment largely because of the U-23 rule. It is also worrying because clubs may simply release their current under-23 players when they reach 24, which would make the rule a significant hinderance to Singapore football’s development down the line.

So, what then? Do we remove the Under-23 rule? I don’t think scrapping it entirely is the best move forward, but instead of 3 Under-23 players starting each match, having only 1 Under-23 player makes sense. Ensuring that a minimum number of Under-23 players are registered for the senior-team is important, but keeping 4 players instead of 6 makes more sense if only one player needs to start. The FAS needs to overhaul its current COE League and create a better system to tackle the issue of declining youth standards. If there is one department that the FAS needs to invest in it, it is certainly in youth coaching and youth training facilities for clubs. Where can the FAS obtain this money? A number of sources are available, but the most practical one would probably be the Tote Board.

The FAS nonetheless should be commended for trying something new. They have the right intention with the implementation of the U-23 rule. I do not think attacking them for it is fair. Still, it is important that stakeholders provide constructive criticism. For football in Singapore to grow, all stakeholders – the fans, the clubs, the players, the FAS, the media, and the sponsors – must come together and help the sport grow collectively. As fans, we should offer constructive criticism and offer support wherever we can. Hopefully, we see some changes made to the U-23 rule soon.

This is probably the start of a number of posts I aim to write to address certain issues that are setting football in Singapore back. Stay tuned for more in the upcoming weeks.

Featured Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

Other Articles you May like

Captain Cambodia: The Thierry Bin Tale

If you are an ardent follower of Southeast Asian football or a Cambodian football fan, Thierry Chantha Bin is definitely not an unfamiliar name to you. The Cambodian superstar has been a talisman for both club and country over the years. National team captain on multiple occasions, Thierry is an icon in Cambodia. Yet, unlike […]

On Moussa Dembélé’s Transfer to Atlético Madrid

Best for all involved? The first of Olympique Lyonnais’ Champions League heroes looks to be out the door, as young French striker Moussa Dembélé looks to be close to sealing a transfer to Spanish giants Atlético Madrid. As reported by Sky Sports’ transfer guru Fabrizio Romano, the deal will be a six-month loan deal with […]

Why the Singapore Premier League should adopt a Franchise mode

While the national team has been relatively weak in recent years, Singaporeans are very much still football-crazy. From diligently watching Premier League matches to playing Futsal with their friends, football is not just a way of life for many Singaporeans, but it is almost a religion. Growing up, I would often bond with my friends […]

Looking to 2021 Part 3: Teams to Watch This Season

In this part, we look at the sides that you need to watch when you have the chance… AC Milan Are AC Milan back? Will they win the Scudetto? I have no idea, but they are certainly a team to keep an eye on. They are a fun team to watch, and while they may […]

Captain Cambodia: The Thierry Bin Tale

If you are an ardent follower of Southeast Asian football or a Cambodian football fan, Thierry Chantha Bin is definitely not an unfamiliar name to you. The Cambodian superstar has been a talisman for both club and country over the years. National team captain on multiple occasions, Thierry is an icon in Cambodia. Yet, unlike most Cambodian internationals, Thierry, while ethnically Khmer, was born in France and even represented the French U-16 team. Don’t let that misguide you, though, Thierry is a patriotic Cambodian and is proud to don the national team jersey every single time. For those of you unfamiliar with Thierry, he plays as a defensive midfielder and he is one of the best Southeast Asian DMs today. I have always wanted to know more about Thierry, and I had the privilege to talk to him a few weeks ago. This is his story.

Humble Beginnings

Thierry was born in Villepinte, which is a commune located in the north-east suburbs of Paris, to Cambodian parents. Thierry’s parents had fled Cambodia during the 1970s just before Pol Pot took control of the state. However, while he was born a French citizen, Thierry’s heart always belonged to Cambodia. He was brought up in a traditional Cambodian household, learning Khmer, eating Cambodian cuisine, and celebrating traditional Cambodian holidays.

Nevertheless, it was in France where Thierry developed his passion for the beautiful game. Like many of us, Theirry grew up with football, and he often played it with his friends. Ever since he was young, he had always been an ardent Manchester United fan (good man) and he idolized David Beckham. While he may have played football casually before he reached his teenage years, that was about to change as he became a teen. At age 14, Thierry signed with the academy of renowned French club RC Strasbourg [who now play in Ligue 1]. It was during his time at the academy when Thierry honed his craft as a footballer, and the experience motivated him to try and become a professional player.

Thierry left the Strasbourg Academy and sought for a professional career elsewhere in France. However, the dream to play at the highest level in France failed to materialize, and Thierry played in the lower divisions in France, turning out for reputable teams like FC Saint-Jean-le-Blanc and FCM Aubervilliers. However, Thierry wanted more – to become a professional player had been his dream for years, and he knew he would look back with regret if he never tried his hardest to become one.

In 2012, Thierry, motivated by his passion to play football professionally without having to work part-time, decided to move to Cambodia to carve out a professional career for himself. It was only the second time Thierry had been in Cambodia (he had been in Cambodia in 2007 with his family). Thierry went to Cambodia as part of a team of foreign players with Cambodian ancestry and heritage. This team went for trials, and a few players managed to earn contracts with Cambodian clubs. Thierry was one such player, and Phnom Penh Crown came in for the defensive midfield general. It would mark the start of a 4-year association with the club.

Living the Dream with Phnom Penh Crown FC , Misfortune with Krabi FC & Almost Playing in Singapore

The transition from football in France to Cambodia was an interesting one for Thierry.

“The environment and the infrastructure were [completely different]. However, I know I didn’t expect the conditions in Cambodia to be the same in France. I wasn’t sad and or anything. I was doing my best to enjoy my work. The only thing I [sort of] faced a challenge with, is the weather. Even now, it is very hot. For me, I like the cold weather. So, when I came here, it was very hot for me at first and it didn’t help that matches were played at 3pm. So, it was very difficult. Now thankfully, few teams have flood lights so matches can be played at 6pm.”

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

During his 4-year stint with Phnom Penh Crown, Thierry would go on to win the C-League title on two occasions. It was also during his time at Phnom Penh when Thierry met his wife in 2013. In 2016, Thierry would end his stint with Phnom Penh on what could be best described as not in the best of terms. It is something that he still is unhappy about – the manner in which he departed the club. Thailand would be his next destination, with Krabi FC his new team [then playing in the 2016 Thai Division 1 League]. A Brazilian coach at Phnom Penh helped Thierry get into contact with Krabi, and the Thai outfit signed him up on a three-year deal.

“Football in Thailand was good. They have good pitches and you’re surrounded by good players. I loved the football there.”

However, that spell would end sooner than expected, as after 6 months, the Thai club replaced their head coach. Unfortunately, Thierry wasn’t in the new coach’s plans, and he would return to Cambodia via a loan to Électricité du Cambodge FC for a few months.

Interestingly, before the move to Krabi transpired, Thierry had an offer from a Singaporean club in 2016. Who was this club? Let the man tell you himself:

“I almost signed for Tampines Rovers. I did not sign with them because I was a big fan of football in Thailand and I really wanted to play there instead.”

I won’t lie. When Thierry revealed this to me, I was pleasantly surprised. I was also wondering about what could have been. Surely, it would have been a real coup for the Stags to sign a player of Thierry’s quality.

When asked about whether that was a possibility in the distant future, he had this to say:

“I’m interested to play anywhere so long as I am happy and comfortable with it.”

So, who knows? Maybe, just maybe.

Raising his Game to the Next Level – Stints with Terengganu, Sukhothai & Perak

Fortunately, Thierry found an escape from his ordeal with Krabi, as Terengganu FC came knocking on his door. Playing for Terengganu is something that Thierry looks back with fond memories.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

“The experience in Malaysia was very very good. I really enjoyed my football and the life I lived there. I really admired the players, the staff, the coaches, and the fans. Everything was very good. One moment that I remember is when I played in the Malaysia Cup with Terengganu in 2018. My daughter was also born in Terengganu in 2019 so it has a special place in my heart.”

After a 2-year spell with the Turtles, an offer from Thailand came beckoning again in 2020. This time, Thai league 1 side Sukothai came in with an offer. Unfortunately, his time in Thailand would be marred with yet another issue. Thierry mutually terminated his contract with the club after 3 months into his one-year deal with them. An issue developed between his agent and the coaches which resulted in his decision to leave the country.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

Thierry had different offers on the table, but after a brilliant spell with Terengganu, he had his heart set on a return to Malaysia. This time, Perak became his new home. However, Thierry couldn’t feature much for the Bos Gaurus because the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“It was very difficult. Being home for 3 months with no training; no football. I was with my family thankfully because I had friends [other teammates] who had no family around them like I did.”

However, Thierry’s fine performances at defensive midfield helped Perak finish 4th in the Malaysia Super League. His impressive performances did not go unnoticed, and a slew of clubs came in with offers for the Cambodian talisman. However, Thierry decided to return to Cambodia instead, signing for Visakha FC.

The Current Visakha Project

To those unfamiliar with Cambodian football, Visakha FC are a relatively new club that have made some serious strides in becoming a real force to contend with. The club was formed in 2016, and in 2020, they won their first accolade, the Hun Sen Cup [think of it as the Cambodian F.A. Cup]. The club have some serious financial backing and through their injections, are trying to revolutionize Cambodian football. Some of the stalwarts playing alongside Thierry this season include Afghan international and former FC St. Pauli II player Mustafa Zazai and Cambodian international and ex-PKNP forward Keo Sokpheng.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

Another reason why Thierry wanted to come back was because Visakha offered him a multi-year contract. Besides the prospect of being part of the Visakha project in the long-run and helping it grow, Thierry also wanted the job security. At 29, Thierry is still far away from retirement, but he is already thinking ahead and looking at post-playing possibilities.

“If I go abroad to play, I always only sign a one-year contract and I need that stability now. It is sort of a gamble. I chose Visakha because they are the best club in Cambodia right now – they are the best club in terms of team, management, and infrastructure. Really, everything is the best.”

Thoughts on his International Experience, Cambodian Football and Personal Struggles

Besides his accolades at the club level, Thierry is also an accomplished international footballer for Cambodia. Once upon a time, however, Thierry was on track to represent France. He had played for the French Under-16 team in the past. While opportunities to represent France at the youth level became limited due to huge number of talented French players, his youth caps illustrate the quality that Thierry brings to the table.

Fast forward a few years, while with Phnom Penh, Thierry got called up to the Cambodian Under-23 team in 2013. While it was proud achievement for Thierry, his dream was still to represent the national senior team one day. He didn’t have to wait for long because in 2014, Thierry’s dream materialized into reality.

Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

“The best day ever. I enjoyed every [national team] training before that match. It was a dream for me to represent my country. I was lucky to get the chance to be the captain of the team. It was a big honour for me. I am very proud because I worked very hard for this, and it is sort of like a reward.”

The biggest moment of his footballing career came not long after when Thierry captained Cambodia against the footballing titans of Asia themselves, the Japanese national team in 2015. Playing against Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe, and Yuto Nagatomo. It will forever be a precious memory for Thierry. That same year, Thierry also scored his first international goal against Macau. He had been plagued with injuries in 2014, and that goal (especially at home in front of 60,000 passionate Cambodian fans) was another magical moment he recalls. Thierry does believe that the Cambodian national team has greatly progressed since his debut in 2014, but he notes how there is room for much more improvement.

“I wish that more Cambodian footballers move abroad and step out of their comfort zone. I do feel that the C-League is improving, but footballers need to go overseas and test themselves to become better. Going overseas will really challenge you. You need to take that risk.”

So, what exactly is holding Cambodian footballers back?

“I think there are many barriers. The Language, the food, and the distance from the family are some reasons why Cambodians don’t try to go overseas. To young Cambodian players, I would tell them to sacrifice everything for their own development. They need to make sure that they work hard and eat properly. They need to train extra and really push themselves. The coach can’t always spoon feed you or keep an eye on you. Right now, some players think after reaching the national team, they don’t have to push anymore.”

Thierry has also overcome many personal struggles in his journey thus far. Often only showcasing the positive things that have happened, many do not know how much he struggled with his injuries and finding clubs to play for.

“When I was at Phnom Penh Crown, I was out of contract for 3 months and I was really stressed about finding a team. Luckily, I managed to find one. I do think that had I stayed with Phnom Penh Crown, I might have not left Cambodia. I struggled a lot for 3 months. I was lucky to have my wife and family who really believed in me and gave me the strength to fight harder.”

Featured Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

There are a number of people that Thierry believes that played a big part in his journey in Cambodia. His parents and wife had immensely supported the player, especially when he was struggling. One other person that played a big part is Anthony Aymard, the ex-Tanjong Pagar defender, who helped Thierry a lot. They are still in regular contact with each other.

Interestingly, while he has a massive social media following, there is no big team that handles his socials. It is all ran by the man himself – Thierry (with the help of his wife, at times).

What’s next for Thierry? Well besides playing an active role in helping Vaisakha attain new heights, Thierry also wants to mentor young Cambodian footballers. He believes many young Cambodian talents lack the necessary skills required for overseas football. Besides issues with language, Thierry wants to help equip players with the necessary knowledge on transfers, contracts, and marketing themselves.

Featured Photo Credits: Theiry Bin (@thierrychanthabin)

Blog Posts You May Like!

Meet Taiichiro Saito, The Man Who Made Football His Life-long Career Part 2: Working with 40,000 Cambodian kids and The Ongoing Venture into Academy Management

In Part 1, I looked at Saito’s rarely spoken about playing career that saw him leave Japan and ply his trade in Singapore, Australia, Ghana, and Bolivia. However, at the age of 32, Saito decided it was time to draw his playing days to a close. Yet, it is always impossible for someone as passionate […]

Looking to 2021 Part 3: Teams to Watch This Season

In this part, we look at the sides that you need to watch when you have the chance… AC Milan Are AC Milan back? Will they win the Scudetto? I have no idea, but they are certainly a team to keep an eye on. They are a fun team to watch, and while they may […]

On Moussa Dembélé’s Transfer to Atlético Madrid

Best for all involved?

The first of Olympique Lyonnais’ Champions League heroes looks to be out the door, as young French striker Moussa Dembélé looks to be close to sealing a transfer to Spanish giants Atlético Madrid. As reported by Sky Sports’ transfer guru Fabrizio Romano, the deal will be a six-month loan deal with an option to buy in the summer for around €35 million. He was specifically targeted by Atléti manager Diego Simeone, who was in personal contact with the player urging him to join Los Colchoneros. It is a logical move, one that I am sort of surprised happened now instead of in the summer, but the more you consider the needs of all parties involved, the more it makes sense for everyone.

Atlético Madrid have been looking for a striker to act as a proper back up to Luis Suárez. With Diego Costa’s departure this month, they needed to sign someone quickly. Dembélé provides them with immediate relief in that position, as a player who is able to play in Atléti’s 4-4-2/4-2-3-1 attacking system and do many of the things Suárez can as a target man, while also providing a bit more in the way of off-the-mark pace than the 33-year-old Uruguayan can provide at this point. As a player, Dembélé has grown quite a bit as a complete forward, able to play as a target man and off the shoulder of the center back, able to play in a two or as a lone striker. It is this flexibility in deployment that will give Atlético plenty of options in using the Frenchman either as a back up for Suárez or playing him alongside Suárez. He also acts as the long-term replacement for the aging Uruguayan, who is only signed on for one more season in the Spanish capital. Dembélé is only 24 and is entering the prime of his career, and he fits the mold needed to lead the line for Atléti for years to come, able to bag the goals when needed but also act as a target man and combine with the likes João Félix and Marcos Llorente. As an added bonus, they have seemingly got him at the nadir of his value, having not been a consistent first-team fixture for Lyon this season, and on a six-month free trial to boot. This is a home run of a deal for Atléti, one that shows that, despite their financial limitations, they are still able to make the moves to keep them competitive not only for this season, where they are still top of La Liga, but also for the years to come.

So why would this move make sense for Lyon, you might ask? Dembélé was great for them, right? He scored those goals against Manchester City in the Champions League Quarterfinals! Why would Lyon sell him now, and for so little?

And yes, you are right. Dembélé has been a fantastic player for Lyon since he moved to the Rhône from Glasgow Celtic in 2018. He has scored plenty of goals, including very important ones against Saint-Étienne and the aforementioned double against Man City. As a player who seemed like a panic buy after Mariano Díaz returned to Real Madrid, he turned out to be a fantastic signing. However, he no longer fits into the plans of the team. Under Rudi Garcia this season, the team has moved to an inverted 4-3-3 system, with Memphis Depay acting as the false nine center forward with Karl Toko-Ekambi and Tino Kadewere play as the inverted wingers. Dembélé is a great player, but he does not fit that central role as well as Memphis, and he does not play the inverted winger role better than Toko-Ekambi or Kadewere. It is this system that has made Lyon title contenders in France, so it does not make sense to hang on to Dembélé if he does not fit the system. Even if Lyon do win the league, it is unlikely that manager Rudi Garcia will continue on in that role after this season, meaning a large upheaval will likely happen at the club this summer that would have likely meant the sale of Dembélé anyway. It is not ideal for Lyon to lose Dembélé now instead of in the summer and at this price point, but ultimately it is not the end of the world.

While it is an option to buy and not an obligation, it seems unlikely that the option will not be exercised by Atlético Madrid, which allows Lyon to use those funds to boost their chances of winning Ligue 1 and getting back into the Champions League next season. Former Sporting, Leicester, and Monaco striker Islam Slimani has seemingly been identified as the short-term replacement, and while he is not as talented as Dembélé, he does at least fit this 4-3-3 better. Slimani is a striker known for his ability to also drop into space and play passes, combining well with Wissam Ben Yedder in Monaco last season to amass a respectable nine goals and seven assists in the league. He can fit better in that center forward position in this 4-3-3 than Dembélé, so, at least in the short term, it makes sense. Lyon have also been one of the teams seeking the signature of Stade Brestois midfielder, and arguably Ligue 1’s biggest breakout star this season, Romain Faivre, a player with incredible creative quality and the potential to become a capped France international very soon. While they could lose out to PSG in the hunt for his signature, Faivre is still a player they now have the ability to pursue and one that I would absolutely give up Dembélé in order to sign. There are also rumors connecting Lyon to several players in South America, with a move for River Plate’s Julián Álvarez being the most likely to happen in January. The point is it gives Lyon options to start their rebuild early. Sporting director Juninho has become a more influential individual behind the scenes at the club, and it is clear he has the long-term vision of where he wants to take the club. Selling Dembélé now, even if at a less than ideal price, allows him to move ahead with his plans.

For the player, this obviously makes sense. He now goes to a club where he will not only play fairly regularly, but one that is clearly a step up for his career from Lyon. Diego Simeone specifically wanted the Frenchman, which says quite a bit, and this move makes sense for Dembélé to advance his career, especially at the international stage. Dembélé never really got the deserved credit for his talent and performances for Les Gones, having yet to make his senior team debut for France despite his clear talent and good performances, as well as the lack of many top quality French strikers in good form. Being on the outside looking in when it comes to the Euros team, Dembélé needed a move away to a top quality club where he could play fairly regularly and catch the eye of France manager Didier Deschamps. While this move might not be in time to make the Euros team, this is still the exact move Dembélé needs to move forward in his career. After his failed move to Manchester United in the summer, a big move was inevitable, and now it came.

The summer window started with a bang, with Dominik Szoboszlai moving to RB Leipzig, and this seems to be the next domino to fall this window. Dembélé will be a miss for Lyon, but it is a logical move that allows them to kick on with their title challenge, as well as their eventual rebuild in the summer. He is a perfect signing for Atlético Madrid, and this move could be a major cause in the player becoming a capped international. This is the next logical move for a young up-and-coming player who many may have forgotten about.

LATEST POSTS

Looking to 2021 Part 3: Teams to Watch This Season

In this part, we look at the sides that you need to watch when you have the chance… AC Milan Are AC Milan back? Will they win the Scudetto? I have no idea, but they are certainly a team to keep an eye on. They are a fun team to watch, and while they may […]

Looking to 2021 Part 4: Stories to Watch

The stories that will develop this year that you need to keep an eye on… Welcome back to the final part of our 2021 preview series. In this part, we will be looking at the big, overarching stories that look to dictate conversation in the football world this year. These are the things you need […]

Meet Geylang International FC Sensation Darren Teh Part 2: The Story Continues

In part 1, I looked at Darren Teh’s beginnings as a footballer and the professional journey he embarked on. Since signing with Geylang in 2017, Darren Teh has largely been a mainstay in the Eagles backline. In this second part, I will look at his professional career thus far, his national team call-up, and his thoughts on fatherhood and his post-playing career.

The Loyal Eagle

For Darren, his second year with the Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (SAFSA) Football team gave him the confidence to pursue a professional career after he completed his National Service. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Darren was very much a raw footballer – with no international or S.League experience and only two years with the NFA under his belt. Winning the treble with SAFSA, therefore, helped open doors for him.

In 2017, at 20 years old, Darren was about to finish his NS and sought for a professional club to transform his footballing aspirations into reality. One of his NFA coaches, Muhammad Effendi Bin Rahmat, was the Assistant Head coach at Warriors and invited Darren to link up with the Prime League squad. However, Darren didn’t feel like Warriors were the best fit for him and was in search for a move to another club. It was then when Umar Akhbar (who was his former NFA team-mate) called Darren and asked if he’d be interested in trying out for Geylang’s Prime League squad. Feeling like he had nothing to lose, Darren went for the trials.

Photo Credits: Geylang International FC

Back in 2017, Noor Ali (who is now the current first team head coach) was the assistant head coach of the first team squad and the Prime League head coach at the time. During his trial, Darren played with confidence, and he did remarkably well. Noor Ali signed him up, and Darren’s professional career was about to begin sooner than he thought.

Many people often assume that Darren started his professional football journey by slugging it out in the Prime League before he got promoted to the senior team. However, that is a major misconception. Darren only played one solitary game with the Prime League squad before lady luck came to his side. Head coach Hasrin Jailani decided, together with his coaching staff, that they wanted to promote two Prime League players into the senior side. While Darren was lucky that the management provided him an opportunity, make no mistake – Darren earned it. If anything, it speaks volumes about Darren’s work ethic and natural ability.

“It was a good call [end of the day] to go to Geylang. I thought I’d be playing Prime League football first but I managed to earn a spot in the S.League team. I remember back then, the S.League team was pretty strong. It was about a year after they dissolved the Lions XI team so Geytlang signed a number of players. We had Gabriel Quak, Safirul Sulaiman, Faritz Hameed, Isa Halim, Syazwan Buhari and Shafiq Ghani.”

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

A few weeks before his ORD date, Noor Ali rang Darren up and informed him that he had been selected as part of the Geylang team that was scheduled to play against Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) in a friendly. Darren remembered driving into Johor for the match and staying in the KSL resort. Shortly after the match, Darren was signed up to a S.League contract.

Darren’s full debut came against Brunei DPMM at Bedok Stadium – a Brunei side that had the fearsome forward duo of Billy Mehmet and Rafael Ramazotti. Faritz Hameed’s injury meant that Darren had an opportunity to shine and shine he did. Darren was a constant presence during the match and his side came out victorious in a 2-0 win over the Bruneian team.

Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League: Geylang International FC vs Brunei DPMM FC (20 April 2017) Credits: Singapore Premier League

However, despite doing well against the DPMM, Darren rarely featured after that and found himself on the bench. It wasn’t until Hasrin Jailani’s sacking mid-season and Noor Ali’s appointment that Darren found chances aplenty. The right-back practically played every single game. Besides providing him opportunities and regular game time, Darren also admires Noor Ali as a coach.

“To me, he is a fantastic coach. Really, he is fantastic. It’s not because he gave me the exposure or what. But honestly, he is really one of the better coaches that I have actually [worked together with].”

Noor Ali, however, left for a extended coaching stint with J2 Team, Matsumoto Yamaga FC, at the start of 2018. As part of the arrangement, Yamaga coach Hirotaka Usui replaced Noor Ali and took reign of the Geylang coaching duties. While Darren fared well under the Japanese, it’s when Noor Ali returned to the fold that he really progressed. This season, Darren continued his fine development and even managed to score his first professional goal.

Representing Singapore: U-23 and National Team Adevntures

His fine performances in his debut season with the Eagles did not go unnoticed, and quite deservedly, he was called up to the Singapore U-23 side that played friendly matches in anticipation of the SEA Games. Matches against Myanmar and India marked the start of Darren’s international exposure, and after getting a taste of it, Darren relished the opportunity for more.

As part of the SEA Games preparation, then-head coach Richard Tardy selected Darren for a training camp that was to be held in Perth. Despite a stellar debut season with the Eagles, Darren failed to make the cut for the final SEA Games squad.

“It was one of my regrets so far – not making it for the SEA Games team. In Perth, it was really cold at the time and it was [constantly] raining. I also have sinus and it was really hard for me to cope with the weather. I actually started in one of the friendly games but I did really badly in that game. So we had two games and I [performed poorly] for the camp overall. The camp was also used as a final selection for the SEA Games and I was actually dropped out of the squad. I made the squad all the way till the last cut – I was one of the last 5 to get dropped. I was really sad at that point in time. I still remember collecting the SEA Games red blazer (that Singaporean athletes wear for the Olympics and Asian as well as SEA Games) and I had to pass Ammirul Emmran my blazer. I still remember receiving the text message that I got dropped and I really felt [devastated].”

Even though it was a crushing blow to a young Darren, it did not stop him from pursuing his ambitions to represent Singapore.

In 2019, Darren finally earned the call-up he had long been waiting for as he was selected for the Singapore national team for matches against Jordan and Saudi Arabia. While most Singaporeans mark their debuts against other regional or lesser ranked national teams, Darren made his debut as a substitute against Jordan and later on his first full start against Asian heavyweights Saudi Arabia in a World Cup Qualification match.

With 2 caps already to his name, it is only a matter of time before Darren adds more to that tally. If his performances during the 2020 SPL Season were anything to go by, Darren would surely feature for the Lions once again.

Future Aspirations and Thoughts on Fatherhood

Like all Singaporean players, Darren aspires to play abroad, and it is a goal he wants to achieve before he retires. He recounts how Baihakki Khaizan was sharing the importance of moving abroad and getting the much needed exposure with other players during his time with the national team. However, Darren also realizes that he needs to rack up more national team caps before foreign clubs would come knocking at his door. Thankfully, Darren has already made the first step, which is to make his debut for the national team, but making more appearances for Singapore is the next step for Darren to secure a move overseas.

Photo Credits: Ko Po Hui (@bolasepako)

Besides becoming a regular Singapore international, Darren also hopes to do well in the AFC Cup next season after Geylang International secured a spot by finishing as the third-best Singaporean side. Doing well in the competition would also be a good platform for Darren to take his game to the next level. However, while a move abroad is something that Darren is aiming for, he is not keen on moving to another team in Singapore.

“I’ve been with Geylang for 4 years. I feel that I have an identity with Geylang. The only time I will leave is when I have more reasons to leave than stay and I don’t have any reasons to leave Geylang. Honestly, besides Lion City [Sailors] and their money, I think all the clubs are almost the same. On any day, anyone could win.”

Besides having aspirations on the pitch, Darren also has many goals he wants to achieve off the pitch. At the top of the list: being a great father to his son. As a young dad, I was intrigued to find out more about how Darren juggled his various responsibilities and his thoughts on fatherhood.

“Bering a dad itself, it wasn’t something that I expected at a young age. Yet, it has been an exciting journey. Before becoming a dad, I was really just like a happy-go-lucky person – if I can play football, I am satisfied. I was pretty comfortable. Then when I had my son, Kylian – I took it from Mbappé by the way. My wife decided on the girl’s name and I decided on a boy’s name. So when the gender was revealed, I decided on Kylian because it sounded good and I did not want a common name.

“Kylian’s arrival really changed me as a person. I wanted to scale greater heights and it also explains why I took up another career as a financial manager because I know that I cannot play football forever. That being said, I also ensured my footballing levels were really high. I was more focused in each game and before the game I always think of winning it for him. That gave me an extra motivation.”

However, it has not been an easy ride for Darren to juggle his various commitments.

“I felt like I neglected Kylian. At the same time I feel like I’m at an age where I can hustle for work and carve out a career for myself. Trainings are usually in the evening and by the time they are over, Kylian is already asleep. It’s only usually during the afternoon when I come home for my afternoon naps that I do spend time with him during the weekdays. During the weekends, I make it a point to bring him out and spend time with him.”

To end off, I think it was rather interesting that Darren decided to pick up a career as a financial manager while also playing football. So, naturally I couldn’t help but probe.

“I did do my diploma and I had to clock in 200 hours of coaching as part of internship requirements. During that whole process, I won’t deny that I did enjoy seeing my players progress and develop. But, deep down I didn’t feel the drive to coach younger kids. If I ever do become a coach, I want to do it at the highest level but I also know that to get there I need to climb there slowly [and start off with the younger age groups]. So, I do enjoy playing but for me personally, I don’t see myself as a coach during my post-playing career. I would contribute back to football by doing some coaching when I eventually retire but I don’t see it as a career.”

Darren Teh’s journey as a professional player thus far is a reminder to Singaporeans that football can be a viable career in Singapore. More often than not, we discourage young players from pursuing a professional footballing career. Yes, while I agree that there have been countless instances of players getting underpaid or delayed salaries in the past, I think initiatives need to be undertaken so that footballers can get the education they need to pursue post-footballing playing careers. Darren’s decision to engage in another job right now and learn a new trait is a lesson for other footballers to reflect upon. Coaching opportunities at the highest level in Singapore are far and few, and unless players invest their time to gain new skills, they’d end up juggling multiple coaching gigs.

Other Articles You May Like

Meet Taiichiro Saito, The Man who made football his life-long career Part 1: The rarely spoken about playing career

To the grassroots football fraternity in Singapore, Taiichiro Saito is a familiar name. Saito was the founder of Global Football Academy (GFA) and is the current founder and managing director of two organizations – Soriya (in Cambodia) and Football For Everyone. While COVID-19 may have grounded him in Singapore for months, Saito would have been […]

The Ludovic Casset Story Part 1: Making History in Vietnam

Ludovic “Ludo” Casset may be an unfamiliar name to many in Southeast Asia, but it is a name that many Vietnamese football fans are well aware of. The current Etoile FC Academy director in Singapore had a short but eventful professional playing career with Đà Nẵng F.C in the V.League 1. While some of his […]

The Italian Job

How Carlo Ancelotti needed only a year to dramatically change Everton’s fortunes, and where they go from here… On Christmas Day 2019, Everton Football Club found themselves in 15th. A few weeks prior, they had sacked manager Marco Silva, the fourth permanent manager to be removed by the Merseyside club since David Moyes’ departure in […]

An Inspiration to Aspiring Footballers: Varghese Jayan, The Self-made Man Part 2

In Part 1, I looked at Varghese’s initial beginnings into football and how he managed to earn a move to Singapore to further his education with Temasek Polytechnic. During his first 2 years in Singapore, Varghese had played for Eunos Crescent and Katong in the National Football League (NFL). He had also had a month-long training stint with Geylang International and a year-long one with Balestier Khalsa. And so the story continues…

Training with the Eagles and playing in the NFL with Balestier United and Jungfrau Punggol

By 2019, when Marko left Kelantan, Varghese had already stopped training with the Tigers for some time. It wasn’t because Balestier Khalsa told him to stop training, but external factors like school assignments and the need to pay school fees took precedence.  Then, some months into the year, coach Noor Ali returned to Geylang from his Japanese coaching stint, and Varghese had the opportunity to train with the team yet again. 

“So, I called Noor Ali and asked if there was any opportunity for me to re-join Geylang for training sessions. I told him that I had not been training for a while and I needed to train. Thankfully, Noor Ali allowed me to [link up] with the Geylang first team.”

Varghese played alongside stalwarts like Darren Teh and Anders Aplin, and he trained for the next 1 and a half years. However, it was centre-back Shahrin Saberin that became really close with Varghese and assumed a similar brother-like role that Sufianto Salleh played for Varghese.

Varghese with Anders Aplin. Image provided by Varghese Jayan

It is worth mentioning that under Noor Ali, Varghese furthered his development as a winger and really became a better player. Varghese believes that Noor Ali really helped him polish up the tactical side of his game and, just as crucially, refine his fundamentals. Just like coach Marko at Balestier and Coach Steven Tan at Temasek Poly, Varghese is grateful for the ability to work alongside another maverick of a coach.

Image provided by Varghese Jayan

It was during his few months with Geylang that Varghese also joined NFL side Balestier United. At Balestier United, Varghese worked alongside another great coach, Razif Ariff. Razif worked as a position analyst with the Singapore National Team and is currently a Coaches Developer with the Singapore Football Association.

“Coach Razif had a lot of trust in me when I was playing for Balestier United. I played all the games under him. Even today, he still is in regular contact with me. The assistant coach, Azlan, also had a huge influence over me. I used to have this issue where I took each game and training session too seriously. For me, I believed it was important to have a serious and tough mentality and there was no room for joking around. He would come to me and talk to me.”

During a friendly game with Jungfrau Punggol, Varghese impressed the Jungfrau coaching team so much so that they invited him to join the club for the remainder of the season. Jungfrau would be Varghese’s last NFL club in Singapore before India.

Image provided by Varghese Jayan

Football with Temasek and Making a ton of friends

Besides his stints with SPL teams and playing in the NFL, Varghese also became a regular for the Temasek Poly football team. In fact, Varghese is the first Indian national to represent the Temasek Polytechnic football team. Playing alongside teammates who turned out for the Young Lions or SPL Prime League teams, there was stiff competition for places.

I reached out to coach Steven Tan, who commented on Varghese’s time in Temasek. He said that, “Varghese is very passionate about football, trains very hard and willing to learn. [He needed] to improve on his tactical part of his game and also believe in himself. The first 2 years was a learning curve for him. In his final year, he was able to play some games. Due to the quality of players in the TP team, it was hard for him to break into the 1st eleven [at first]. But he continued to train hard and I told him the end result will come later.”

It did come later, as Varghese preserved and featured in the first team in his last season. During his time with the Temasek football team, Varghese had many memorable moments. It was, in many ways, his entry point into local football. He recalls one such memorable moment with the team.

“We went to Thailand to play like international friendly matches of sorts with Universities over there. That was my first experience travelling with a team. I did not have that experience before. So, all the players were staying together in a five-star hotel, we were like one big family. We stayed there for 4 days only but we played 2 friendly matches. Playing against the Thai teams was a humbling experience.”

Unlike the majority of Indian national students who travel to Temasek Polytechnic, Varghese shares that he was fortunate to have made countless Singaporean friends, many of whom he considers as his close friends.

“I have made many close friends during my time in Singapore. When I mean close, I mean really close. It’s like how I have my friends in my village while growing up. They are that close. [My Singaporean friends] still chat with me everyday.”

One such friend that Varghese holds dearly is Nicholas Wong – yes that’s right, the same Nicholas Wong that coached and mentored Darren Teh. Varghese had come to know of Nicholas during a social game during his early days in Singapore, but it was not until he was working part time at Leeds United Academy that they formally met. Soon, they developed close bonds. Like Steven, Nicholas had helped Varghese a lot. At the time, while he was never trained by Nicholas, Varghese learned many important off the pitch lessons from Nicholas.

“I remember how we always headed to the coffee shop opposite the Merlion Sports City Fields after training at 1pm. We would still be sitting there until 7.30pm, talking about everything football and just football. Whether be it local football or international football. He was the one that really guided me on a lot of things like how to act as a professional.”

The Journey to NEROCA FC Part 1– Trials in India

The journey to NEROCA was not a smooth sailing one for Varghese. He had travelled to India for trials with other clubs, but these efforts yielded little results. During the 2019/2020 mid-season window, a friend of Varghese informed him out of the blue that there was an opportunity to trial in Punjab. It didn’t take much convincing for Varghese, who wanted to give everything to pursue professional footballing career.

After managing to pull some funds together, he went to Punjab to trial with Minerva Punjab FC [now known as RoundGlass Punjab FC], but it was a case of ill-timing because when he was there, the team had been traveling around the country for their away matches. Varghese stayed at the club’s facilities for approximately 20 days, but there was no training since the team wasn’t there during that period. The Punjab club provided everything from accommodation at the club’s facilities to food for Varghese except for the trial. However, there was a silver lining.

“For the I-League, teams don’t always train at their own facilities. It is always on the go. It can take them up to 5 days to reach their next game, then they will train there for a few days and after that, it takes another few days for them to return or go to their next fixture if it’s an away game. So, I was there with some other players. Clubs, by right, will only take 18 players with them for trips but they will often sign upwards of 30 players for a season. So, since they can’t take everyone with them, some of them stayed behind.

“One player that stayed behind was Baldeep Singh. He had represented India at the national team level [12 caps] and even played against Bayern Munich during a friendly fixture some years ago. He even played for the East Bengal team that won Balestier Khalsa in the AFC Cup in 2015 and Baldeep was one of the scorers for Bengal in that 3-0 win. He was sharing his experience with me and it was a very good motivation. Even though I did not get to train, I had the opportunity to meet such players.”

Image provided by Varghese Jayan

Varghese had some time to engineer a move since he came in December. The I-League window opens at the very start of January and ends sometime in the middle of the month. While Vargehse was hopeful at first, nothing materialized for him just yet.  

Realizing that there was next to no chance for him at Minerva, Varghese looked elsewhere for an opportunity. He managed to get in contact with Akbar Nawas, the Singaporean head coach of Chennai City FC, and tried to arrange a trial. However, it was yet again a case of ill-timing for Varghese. Akbar explained to him how they had more or less finalized their squad for that season, and they had just signed their last foreign signing from Switzerland (Chennai City have a partnership with FC Basel). In essence, he had very little chances of securing a contract. However, Akbar did provide Varghese the opportunity to train with the Chennai City team – an opportunity that he took.

3 days later the mid-season window closed and Varghese returned to Singapore, fortunately landing before the period when Covid-19 drastically escalated. One area that Varghese realized he needed to work on was his strength. The I-League is known to be a very physical league, and he wanted to add a few layers of muscle to ensure he wasn’t going to be bullied around if he ever did get the chance to play in India.

The Journey to NEROCA FC Part 2– Signing his first pro contract

Image provided by Varghese Jayan

In October 2019, NEROCA FC head coach Gift Raikhan gifted Varghese with the opportunity to transform his footballing dreams into reality. How did the offer come to materialize? So, while Varghese was in Punjab, he got into contact with a club official who used to see Varghese training together with the reserves at the Minerva facilities. He provided Raikan’s contact to Varghese, and the winger did not hesitate to get in touch with him. Varghese passed his CV and highlight reels to Raikhan, and it’s safe to say that the NEROCA boss was impressed. I guess, to some extent, it’s not that surprising. Even though Varghese had zero professional experience, he was only 22 and had put in impressive performances in the NFL (getting 3 Man of the Match awards in his last season with Jungfrau Punggol).

Here are some of Varghese’s clips:

One person that was instrumental in Varghese’s transfer to NEROCA was the legendary R. Vengadasalam, the Mouth in the North. The ex-Woodlands Welliington manager really helped Varghese out in administrative matters regarding the transfer, and he is yet another prominent member of the local footballing fraternity that has helped Varghese.

Reflections

Varghese recounts how hard it was to pursue football seriously given his circumstances. While his other Indian national peers went back home each semester break, Varghese couldn’t afford to skip his trainings. It took him two years before he could return to Kerala and see his family. He told himself that attending weekly Geylang and Balestier training sessions were simply too priceless for him to miss. At the time, he was also faced with a dilemma. Had he chosen to work extra hours; he couldn’t have trained every day. At the same time, he also had to ensure he had sufficient time dedicated for sleep as well as to finish his assignments. During his 3 and a half years in Singapore, it’s safe to say that it was a balancing act for the winger.

Image provided by Varghese Jayan

“For me, I really had to budget. I only bought what was necessary. I did not need Nike shoes and apparel. I only need proper accommodations and food. Thankfully, Steven Tan also helped with apparel, and he bought me my boots once. I was really fortunate that in my journey thus far to have so many coaches and teammates who helped me along the way. All my coaches in Singapore took good care of me. “

Thing is, Varghese highlights an interesting point. He explains that he isn’t from a poor family. He had his own two-floor house, and their family owned a car. However, he chose to pay off his tuition fees on his own because the exchange rate and difference in cost of living meant it would have been a major sacrifice for his parents to afford his diploma.

“You have to understand, in SGD, my parents probably make somewhere between 900 to 1000 SGD a month. It is enough in India. However, how can I expect my parents to spend thousands? It would cause a lot of instability at home and I don’t want my parents to sacrifice their livelihood.”

Image provided by Varghese Jayan

Varghese’s story suggests two things: First, perhaps our NFL Divisions just need a tad bit more funding to increase standards of training and coaching. Varghese did not play in the Prime League, nor professionally. He is a clear example that talent exists in these leagues, and we can quite realistically have a promotion and relegation system. Second, Singaporean players can play overseas if they have the right work ethic and make certain sacrifices for their career. Of course, it is easier said than done, but inculcating a professional work ethic in the minds of young players is important.

What’s next for Varghese? Well, featuring in the I-League is his immediate goal, but the sky is the limit for this young winger. Keep a lookout for him in the years to come. And when he does shine, just remember that he really earned it.

Other Articles you may like!

Looking to 2021 Part 4: Stories to Watch

The stories that will develop this year that you need to keep an eye on… Welcome back to the final part of our 2021 preview series. In this part, we will be looking at the big, overarching stories that look to dictate conversation in the football world this year. These are the things you need […]

Meet Taiichiro Saito, The Man Who Made Football His Life-long Career Part 2: Working with 40,000 Cambodian kids and The Ongoing Venture into Academy Management

In Part 1, I looked at Saito’s rarely spoken about playing career that saw him leave Japan and ply his trade in Singapore, Australia, Ghana, and Bolivia. However, at the age of 32, Saito decided it was time to draw his playing days to a close. Yet, it is always impossible for someone as passionate […]

Looking to 2021 Part 3: Teams to Watch This Season

In this part, we look at the sides that you need to watch when you have the chance… AC Milan Are AC Milan back? Will they win the Scudetto? I have no idea, but they are certainly a team to keep an eye on. They are a fun team to watch, and while they may […]

Looking to 2021 Part 4: Stories to Watch

The stories that will develop this year that you need to keep an eye on…

Welcome back to the final part of our 2021 preview series. In this part, we will be looking at the big, overarching stories that look to dictate conversation in the football world this year. These are the things you need to look out for.

Actual, real, legitimate title races

After an incredibly boring 2019-20 season with only one of the “top five” leagues being remotely competitive, we go into 2021 with three of those leagues having new teams at the top, with Lyon topping Ligue 1, AC Milan topping Serie A, and Atlético Madrid topping La Liga. Every league also has a competitive points margin. Four points separate first place Liverpool and fourth place Everton in the Premier League. Six points separate first place Atlético Madrid and third place Real Sociedad in La Liga. Five points separate first place Lyon and fourth place Rennes in Ligue 1. Two points separate first place Bayern and third place Leipzig in the Bundesliga. A bit more lengthy seven points separate first place Milan and third place Roma in Serie A. But still, these leagues are close, and with several teams having games in hand over the teams around them, it looks like it can get even closer. There is seemingly no one dominant team in any of the top five leagues, so there is no real clear title favorite in any of them, and the teams that have dominated these leagues over the last few years look to have a serious fight on their hands against the teams around them.

We still have quite a bit of football left to play, and the slog of late league seasons and cup competitions could take their toll on some teams, especially if the COVID Pandemic requires league matches, or even whole seasons, to be delayed, but it is still looking good for us to have some serious competition in the major European leagues in the second half of this season.

Euro 2020, but in 2021

I will admit, international football is not everyone’s cup of tea, and I know I probably enjoy it a bit more than most fans around the world. International competitions still attract plenty of interest, however, and this European Championship looked to be the biggest spectacle the competition has seen in recent years, with the competition being spread out over the entirety of the continent. However, due to COVID, it does not look like that will happen, or at least happen with fans in attendance. While that is a real shame and does take away some of what could have made this Euros great, it still looks set to be a great competition because, just like the domestic leagues, there does not seem to be one clear favorite.

Sure, France are the reigning world champions and probably the most talented team in the competition, but with some of the performances they put up in qualifying and some of their friendly performances in 2020, I am not so sure they should be favorites. While they are still very talented on paper, some of the key players from the World Cup team, including Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Samuel Umtiti, and Antoine Griezmann, are not in good form. France has plenty of talent, but football is not a sport where you can just throw talent on the pitch and they will win. It also seems unclear whether manager Didier Deschamps is willing to trust that young talent, or even if he knows what formation and system suits his team the best. Belgium is another interesting case, with most of their “Golden Generation” beginning to either hit their peak or start to age out. They still have one of the best players in the world in Kevin De Bruyne, and they will be boosted by a more in-form Romelu Lukaku, but they do seem to be questionable defensively. Roberto Martínez has also not necessarily shown he has the managerial nous to get Belgium over the hump and finally win a major tournament.

Meanwhile, some of the “other” teams look pretty dang good. Italy seem to have quietly built one of the most balanced teams on the continent, England still have plenty of attacking talent even with questions around manager Gareth Southgate, and Spain look to be ushering in a promising young generation spearheaded by Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres. Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark all have talent needed to at least make some noise at the tournament, if not win the whole thing. It is a very interesting tournament, and it is very possible that we have a champion that is not expected.

A real shame that there will not be fans, though. I would have enjoyed watching England play Scotland at Wembley. That would have been some spectacle.

A potential summer transfer upheaval

This upcoming summer transfer window looks to be a very interesting one. The obvious story is the future of Lionel Messi, but there are a few big pieces that will be at play this summer.

Firstly, Real Madrid did not save all of that money from last summer for no reason. Los Blancos look to be major players in this transfer window, especially if they do not end up winning the title this season, as they need to usher out the previous generation and bring in new talent. Kylian Mbappé has long been a name connected with Real Madrid, and there is genuine momentum around Real Madrid making a move for the French phenom this summer. But has recent events at the club changed his mind about wanting a move away? With Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival in Paris, PSG have seemingly never had a better chance at winning the Champions League. Would Mbappé want to stay in the capital and see that opportunity out? Or does his dream of playing for Real Madrid still remain? Beyond Mbappé, are there other moves that Real Madrid will make? Who leaves the club? Club captain Sergio Ramos is a notable player whose contract expires at the end of the season, and it does not look like a renewal agreement will be reached at this moment. Can the club afford to lose such a valuable player? Where does Ramos go? Who does Real Madrid bring in to replace him if he does leave? Mbappé is the most interesting moving part connected with Los Blancos, but he certainly is not the only one. It will be a busy summer for Real Madrid.

Moving from Mbappé to France in general, the recent catastrophically failed Téléfoot TV deal means French clubs are going to be losing a whole lot of money this year. With many French clubs, including major powers Lille and Marseille, already facing financial difficulty, this could mean an exodus of talent from Ligue 1 to other leagues. With Lyon and Lille in particular having quite talented teams, it is very possible those teams get picked apart in the summer as the talent moves to leagues across Europe. Ligue 1 could prove to be a fertile farming ground especially for mid-level clubs lacking the pull and finances of the top echelon of clubs in Europe, with the league boasting plenty of talented young players, outside of just the big name players, that will be available for reasonable prices. It is not just the Houssem Aouar’s or Renato Sanches’ or Eduardo Camavinga’s of the world, but players like Sven Botman, Youcef Atal, Mohamed Simakan, and Denis Bouanga will be names you hear connected with moves across the continent and could be the most successful moves from Ligue 1.

This window is also very interesting because there seems to be more key teams involved. With the leagues having more balance and parity this season, there will be teams going into the market this summer to maintain their high level or push beyond that to become true contenders. This is especially the case in England, where Liverpool and Manchester City will look to the market to maintain their high level, while Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton, and Leicester will go into the market to continue closing the ever-closing gap between them and the top of the league. Atlético Madrid and Borussia Dortmund will also likely be very active, as will basically the entire top six or seven teams in Serie A. It will be very busy for everyone, as we are seemingly now in a world where the gap between the top and the chasers is nearly nonexistent.

Lionel Messi’s Future

Yeah, we will inevitably get to a decision point. Lionel Messi’s Barcelona contract, as you may know, runs out at the end of this season. In the summer of 2021, Lionel Messi will be a free agent. Will he stay, or will he go? Messi is free to negotiate with new clubs starting now, but he has said he has no plans to negotiate with other clubs until the end of the season out of respect for Barcelona. So we will really be waiting until the very end to find out the answer.

Does he stay? After all, he is Mr. Barcelona. He is their greatest ever player. He is so connected to that football club that it is hard to imagine one without the other. He is also their most important player right now, and while they are even struggling with Messi on the pitch this season, it is not impossible that things will only get worse should he leave Catalonia in the summer. With Barcelona presidential elections coming up in a few months, it is very possible that a new club president comes in and reverses much of the poor decision making and leadership that characterized Josep Bartomeu’s reign. Will Messi see the manager he wants? Potentially Xavi returning to the Camp Nou as manager? Can Barcelona get their finances right to be able to make the moves in the transfer window they need to make? Messi still has a few years left in him, enough time for one more run at the Champions League, time to exorcise the ghosts of Rome and Liverpool. He can still cap off his career as a winner with the club he has spent almost his whole adult life at.

Or does he go? Realistically, are Barcelona going to get themselves out of this mess in a few years? Will anything change in leadership at the top? Is keeping Messi even still in their best interests? The legend is getting older, it is possible it may be in all parties best interest to part ways, allowing Barcelona to build for the future around Ansu Fati and Pedri. Ronald Koeman’s tenure as manager has not gone well, but with Guardiola and Pochettino off the market, is there really a good alternative? Would Xavi even be a good choice? And there are plenty of options for Messi, plenty of clubs where he can make a run at the Champions League one last time. Manchester City and PSG are likely the two favorites to sign him should he leave, and both clubs would be Champions League contenders, or even favorites, instantly with the addition of Messi. He could also leave European football behind, returning to Newell’s Old Boys with the goal of helping them win the Copa Libertadores. He could go to MLS, or Japan, or somewhere else, somewhere less stressful and less burdensome and less of a wreck than Barcelona at the moment.

Where is Messi going to end up? I truly have no idea, but we do not have to wait long to find out.

There you have it. These are the major stories in the football world in 2021. These will be the ones that dominate the headlines over the next 12 months. And this concludes our 2021 preview. Thank you for your readership, and look out for more articles and content coming from us this year!

LATEST POSTS

Looking to 2021 Part 1: The Year’s Potential Breakout Stars

In our first preview of the year, we look at some of the young players that could enjoy break out years and enter the mainstream football discussion… Welcome to 2021! As a follow up to our 2020 Year In Review, I will be writing a few posts to give you some topics, stories, players, and […]

Looking to 2021 Part 2: The Big Names to Watch

Looking at the big names that could take up the headlines this year… Welcome back to Part 2 of our 2021 preview series! Today, we are looking at the players who will likely be the center of attention this year for a variety of reasons. Most, if not all, of these players will be more […]

Looking to 2021 Part 3: Teams to Watch This Season

In this part, we look at the sides that you need to watch when you have the chance… AC Milan Are AC Milan back? Will they win the Scudetto? I have no idea, but they are certainly a team to keep an eye on. They are a fun team to watch, and while they may […]

Meet Taiichiro Saito, The Man Who Made Football His Life-long Career Part 2: Working with 40,000 Cambodian kids and The Ongoing Venture into Academy Management

In Part 1, I looked at Saito’s rarely spoken about playing career that saw him leave Japan and ply his trade in Singapore, Australia, Ghana, and Bolivia. However, at the age of 32, Saito decided it was time to draw his playing days to a close. Yet, it is always impossible for someone as passionate […]