“Big game player” Jermaine Pennant is emerging as Tampines Rovers’ key man as the Singapore club take a trip into the unknown in the AFC Cup quarterfinals on Wednesday night.
With the former Liverpool winger expected to be given a free role, the Stags are away to a Bengaluru FC side who have changed coaches, and several players, since they were last in action in the competition in May.
Former Barcelona assistant boss Albert Roca has taken over from Ashley Westwood as head coach, with the new I-League season due to begin in January.
“With the Indian league season not started yet, we are not sure what to expect from Bengaluru, and that could be a good or bad thing,” Tampines boss Akbar Nawas told ESPN FC.
“But under their new coach, they will still have a good, sound and organised team, and will present a big challenge for us, away from home.”
Tampines are smarting from last Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Home United that dealt their S.League hopes a serious blow. Akbar predicted a strong reaction from his players, who were below par at Bedok Stadium.
“The mood was that everyone was very disappointed, especially with the number of chances that we didn’t convert,” he said. “But we’ve got to take it as a positive to produce a better performance in the AFC Cup.”
Former Perth Glory striker Billy Mehmet was suspended for the Home United game, but will be back to face Bengaluru. Captain Fahrudin Mustafic, who was used as an emergency striker, is expected to resume a more familiar position in central defence.
Midfielder Fabien Kwok, who’s been sidelined with an ACL strain for the past month, could return to the squad, adding to a strong bench.
Pennant, 33, has produced some of his best Tampines form in the AFC Cup, and Akbar said he expected the England U21 star to rise to the occasion.
“Jermaine is a big game player, and when it comes to the crunch, he will always turn up,” Akbar said.
Akbar added that he would be delighted if Tampines were able to emerge from the Sree Kanteerava Stadium with a score draw.
“We really have to be tactically smart, and balance it out, especially in the first 15 minutes,” he said. “I’ve got to prepare my players properly, motivate them so they can be as eager yet cam as possible. We would definitely take a 1-1 draw.”
In the Round of 16 on May 24, Tampines defeated India’s Mohun Bagan 2-1, after extra-time, with the winning goal coming from Afiq Yunos in the 116th minute at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati.