The stake could not have been higher when Geylang International host Balestier Khalsa at Our Tampines Hub this Saturday (August 12). Up for grabs between these two Singapore Premier League rivals is a ticket to next season's AFC Cup.
Last featured in the 2010 edition, the Eagles were unfortunate to have missed out on Asia's second-tier competition in the previous two seasons even though they had finished as the third-best Singaporean club in the league. While the Tampines outfit saw their 2021 tournament cancelled due to COVID-19, continental football continued to elude them the following year as Hougang United snatched the final spot as Singapore Cup winners.
With only three games left to play this season, Geylang are three points away from the final AFC Cup berth presently held by Balestier in fourth. Given the qualifying slot is within touching distance, the fallen Singaporean giants are determined to not let Lady Luck evade them for the third time in a row.
A win against their forthcoming opponents will boost their qualification chances as they leapfrog to fourth with a slightly better goal difference.
Should Noor Ali's side fail to pick up a victory this weekend, their race for Asia may well be over as even a minimally three-point deficit would be tough to overhaul with the season drawing to a close.
While the Eagles have won their last five encounters against the Tigers, the upcoming contest is unlikely to be a walk in the park for the home team.
Despite already lost their previous two meetings to Geylang this campaign, Balestier still manage to punch above their weight and occupy a spot higher than their Eastern rivals.
Their lofty league position is largely driven by Golden Boot contender Ryoya Taniguchi, who has plundered 18 goals this season and is on a blistering goalscoring form.
Clearly, Taniguchi has to be well-marshalled by the Eagles backline, just like how it was accomplished in their past two victories over the Tigers this year with the 23-year-old attacking midfielder drawing a blank in terms of goal and assist.
Fans dreaming of Asian football are pinning their hopes on Geylang to put in another stout defending this weekend, while their heroes search for goals that would fire the team to continental qualification come end of the campaign.
Team news: On the back of a humiliating 6-1 defeat to Albirex Niigata last week, Amirul Adli's return from suspension is a timely boost for Geylang. But Noor Ali certainly hopes that the Singapore defender would cut out on unnecessary fouls like the ones that led to his dismissal against Brunei DPMM.
Rudy Khairullah's audition in the heavy White Swans loss has done him no favour in staking a claim between the sticks. This should see Hafiz Ahmad, who has the joint-highest number of Man of the Match awards, returning to his post.
Vincent Bezecourt and Huzaifah Aziz are victims of cruciate ligament injury and supporters are likely to have seen the last of them this campaign.
Player to watch: Yushi Yamaya - The former Yokohama Marinos man had been wasteful in front of goal against Albirex, before eventually scoring the consolation in the lop-sided defeat. Fans would like to see Yamaya putting on his scoring boots in the crucial clash against the Tigers.