Sundram confident his stags will dazzle

Tampines Rovers striker Fazrul Nawaz (left) in action for former club Warriors FC in last season's S-League. He will be looking to get off the mark tonight when Tampines take on Indian side Mohun Bagan in Kolkata for a place in the next qualifying round for the AFC Champions League.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

New star, new-look squad, new chairman - after all the razzmatazz of the Jermaine Pennant signing and the mass recruitment of former LionsXII players, the new era at Tampines Rovers begins today.

Fittingly, the host venue is India's largest football arena, Kolkata's 68,000-seat Salt Lake Stadium, where the Stags will take on Mohun Bagan in a bid to enter the next qualifying stage of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League.

Despite the absence of Pennant, who was not registered in time, Tampines coach V. Sundramoorthy and his men know all the buzz will count for naught if they cannot translate the hype into what really matters - success on the pitch.

But the man known as The Dazzler in his heyday is confident his team can pull off a result, even without the former Arsenal and Liverpool winger.

"Of course we'll miss Pennant but we need to learn to cope without him. We have players who can run, who can push up high and try to score goals, so we need to go out there to entertain and play attacking football," said Sundram.

Tampines can register Pennant if they reach the group stages, or if they lose and drop to the second-tier AFC Cup.

Mohun Bagan are second in the nine-club I-League after three games, winning twice and drawing once.

The I-League is separate from the Indian Super League, which featured stars like Nicolas Anelka and Alessandro del Piero in its first season in 2014. Most of India's national footballers play in the I-League.

The Stags have played two friendlies so far, beating Hougang United 2-0 and labouring to a 1-0 win over Johor Darul Takzim II.

"We are still in pre-season mode. It won't be easy but we will go out there and work hard to get something," said Sundram.

His confidence stems from an expensive squad, bolstered by Pennant as well as nine former LionsXII players, many of them established Singapore internationals.

While Sundram wants to take the game to his opponents, his team's rearguard will be crucial against Mohun Bagan, nicknamed the Mariners.

The Kolkata-based team boast last season's second top-scorer, Cornell Glen. The Trinidad and Tobago striker, who played in the 2006 World Cup for his country, struck 16 times last season for Shillong Lajong, and leads the I- League's scoring chart with four goals so far.

Haitian winger Sony Norde, who scored nine goals last term, is another goal threat. Tellingly, Sundram said goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud will be one of his key men tonight.

But he believes his centre-backs Afiq Yunos and South Korean Kwon Jun will be strong enough to cope with Glen, who stands at 1.74m tall and tips the scales at 89kg.

Afiq expects a physical battle, likening Glen to former Malaysia Super League adversaries like Pahang's Dickson Nwakaeme and ATM's Marlon James. He said: "We've watched videos of him on YouTube. We can't give him too much space. If he is too strong, Jun and I must help each other."

If they get past Mohun Bagan, a daunting trip to Jinan, China to take on Shandong Luneng in freezing conditions awaits the five-time S-League champions on Feb 2.

However, even with what he called "on paper one of the strongest teams he's ever coached", Sundram insists the AFC Champions League is not the be all and end all for Tampines this season.

"We got the players because primarily, we want to entertain and bring in the crowds. We can't predict anything. But if we put on a good show tonight, we will be on the flight to China," said Sundram.

This article was first published on January 27, 2016. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.