Beware the so-called minnows.
That's the warning Tampines Rovers coach Rafi Ali has for the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League sides who think they can take lightly their RHB Singapore Cup ties against Cambodian and Laotian opponents.
This year's Singapore Cup sees the debut of Cambodian teams Nagacorp FC and Svay Rieng, and Laotian outfit SHB Champasak.
Former national midfielder Rafi saw first-hand how solid a team Nagacorp are, when Tampines travelled to Cambodia to play a pre-season friendly.
The rookie coach, who was named the Stags permanent coach last Thursday, noted: "They are a good team.
"Their players are fast and hardworking, and they like to play a short-passing game.
"I was actually surprised by how good they were, because the pitch we played on was not that even, but they still managed to play a good passing game."
For the record, Tampines won the friendly match 1-0, thanks to a long-range blockbuster from Paraguayan midfielder Luis Closa.
Nagacorp, Cambodian league champions in 2007 and 2009, certainly have pedigree in knock-out competitions.
They reached the final of the Hun Sen Cup - the Cambodian equivalent of the Singapore Cup - four times in the last seven years, although they won it only once, last season.
Bankrolled by Cambodian hotel, gaming and leisure operator Nagacorp, they are currently second in the 12-team Metfone C-League and boast the best defence in the country, conceding just seven goals after 12 games.
They also have former Warriors FC midfielder Masahiro Fukusawa in their ranks, and take on Home United at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday.
Fellow C-League side Svay Rieng, meanwhile, face Albirex Niigata at the same venue on Wednesday.
Svay Rieng are reigning Cambodian champions but have struggled this season and are currently seventh.
Like Nagacorp, they have also tasted Cup glory, winning the Hun Sen Cup in 2011 and 2012.
The third Indochina team in this year's competition, Laotian champions Champasak, play another invited team, Philippines' Loyola Meralco Sparks, also at Jalan Besar, on Sunday
Rafi warns that S.League teams underestimate these sides at their own peril, even though the furthest a non-Thai Indochinese team have gone in the Singapore Cup were Phnom Penh Crown in 2009, when they reached the quarter-finals.
When asked if a surprise package or two can gatecrash the party, he said: "I don't see why not.
"I remember noticing that Nagacorp have got good, experienced players, and their foreign imports are not bad too, although I'm not sure if they were just on trial (in pre-season).
"They are quite capable of surprising one or two teams."
This article was first published on May 26, 2014.
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