SINGAPORE – Since 2015, no local team have won the Singapore Premier League (previously known as S-League), and no team could break the Albirex Niigata title monopoly since 2016.
But a trio of regular contenders and dark horses have emerged in a bid to end the Japanese team’s dominance in the 2019 season.
Five-time champions Tampines Rovers proved their mettle early on with a 4-0 pre-season win over the White Swans and will be keen to show they are way better than their fourth-placed finish last season.
With chairman Desmond Ong handing out multi-year contracts since coming on board in 2017, the Stags are benefiting from the stability and continuity as their players are showing a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities on the pitch.
Even as 19-year-old Singaporean Joel Chew and 20-year-old Serb Zehrudin Mehmedovic look set to be a revelation in midfield with their intelligent play, Tampines are also banking on those at the other end of the experience spectrum to make a difference.
Canadian Jordan Webb, 30, is entering his 10th SPL season and for a winger, has an outstanding record of 79 goals in 208 league games, while 41-year-old centre-back Daniel Bennett is into his 21st SPL season.
Possibly the longest-serving import in the local professional game, Webb has thrilled fans with his ability to take on and beat defenders. He said: “Time moves so fast. I want to play for a few more years and win some silverware.
“Having kept the bulk of players from last season definitely helps in terms of chemistry. I would be selling us short if I say we are not going for all the trophies. We have good atmosphere, good ideas and the energy levels are high.”
Tampines coach Gavin Lee added: “Many are raving about Joel’s talent and potential but we need to be careful with expectations and give him every chance to succeed.
“As for Daniel and Jordan, it is not about age. They are as good as any player in their positions in the local game and we wouldn’t sign them if we didn’t think they can contribute. Besides their abilities, they are great leaders to those learning the ropes.
“We want to be effective in and out of pre-season. It is not just the results, but the performance that defines who we are. If we can win and entertain with attractive football, that would be the ideal scenario.”
Two-time winners Home United are also another local side to have gotten one over Albirex this season, when they beat the defending champions on penalties for the Community Shield last Saturday.
The Protectors were the best local side last season, finishing league runners-up and winning the AFC Cup Asean zonal final. Like Tampines, they have retained 17 of 24 players, including South Korean lynchpin Song Ui-young and the evergreen Shahril Ishak who combined for 40 goals in all competitions last term.
They also boast of arguably the league’s best local Under-23 trio in forward Adam Swandi, central midfielder Hami Syahin and central defender Taufiq Muqminin.
With their last major trophy coming in the form of the 2013 Singapore Cup and their last league title in 2003, Home coach Saswadimata Dasuki said it is time to end the drought.
He added: “We want to build on our successes last season and go one better. Fifteen years without a league title is too long and we will have to work hard and keep our concentration even with our AFC Cup commitments to end that wait.
“Beating Albirex on penalties is good for our confidence and it should one of the most open seasons in recent years but we won’t write them off as they can only get better training full time without National Service or school commitments.
“They played with five at the back against us and we couldn’t score, so it is up to us to find ways to adapt and penetrate against such teams in the future.”
Meanwhile, the dark horses in the nine-team SPL have to be Hougang United, who added considerable firepower to a team that scored a league-low of just 22 goals in 24 games last season.
While they have never finished in the top half or won any major titles, the Cheetahs are gunning for history, with coach Clement Teo declaring that “third would be an underachievement”.
Retaining forwards Iqbal Hussain, Shahfiq Ghani and Fazrul Nawaz, they have since signed Faris Ramli and welcomed back Croat Stipe Plazibat and captain Zulfahmi Arifin.
They initially secured the services of 2015 and 2016 top scorer Rafael Ramazotti, only for the Brazilian to go missing and sign for Mexican club FC Juarez.
Teo was positive and saw this development as a blessing in disguise as it allowed him to shore up his defence with South Korean centre-back Kong Howon.
He said: “We wanted two foreign strikers to give us more firepower, but it was also true that Afiq Yunos was our only natural centre-back.
“The Ramazotti incident allowed us to sign Kong and it was a bonus we picked up Faris, and he will give us a different dimension with his ability to take on players. Yes, we have many attackers, but this also means there is a good and healthy competition to start a game.
“With the team we assembled, we feel we need to be in the title race. Among our players, the mindset is even a draw is an underachievement.”
Zulfahmi, who has returned after one season with Thailand’s Chonburi, added: “Any team can win the league this season and Albirex are beatable. It depends on who are the most consistent across 24 games.
“Thanks to our chairman Bill Ng and the management, we now have quality attackers and a great team, so we got to be more adventurous and clinical than before to fight for the targets we want to achieve.”
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