Asian Football

The SPL Round 1 Round-Up Part 1: The Top Half

The first round of the Singapore Premier League has concluded, and as teams prepare for the second round of fixtures, let’s take a look at how each team has fared. Despite the varying level of successes of each club, one thing is for certain – it has been goals galore in the first 7 match days. Over 110 goals have been collectively scored by the 8 SPL clubs, and fans have been treated to some delightful goals and sensational attacking displays. While the defensive departments of most clubs certainly need refinements, it has nonetheless been a thrilling first round thus far.

1st – Albirex Niigata (S)

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

A lot of uncertainty faced the White Swans prior to the start of the Singapore Premier League. Many of their players could only enter Singapore on January 31, and after a two week quarantine period, they had barely a month to gel together and gain match fitness.

Yet, Albirex have managed to do it once again. Despite the odds, and an overhaul of their squad, they have once again regained top spot. Better still, they remain undefeated.

Kiyoshiro Tsuboi started the season off strongly but suffered a 3-game goal drought after. The Japanese hotshot notched a hattrick in the final game of the first round to remind the rest of the pack that he is a threat. Besides Tsuboi, Ryoya Taniguchi and Kuraba Kondo have stepped up to the plate as well.

Albirex’s defenses have been tested this season but they remain the most stable in the league. Takahiro Koga has kept 4 clean sheets, the most in the SPL. While he has pulled some stunning saves, the Japanese custodian isn’t tested as much as he should be.

Why? Well, that answer lies with the White Swans’ backline. Kazuki Hashioka, Shuya Yamashita, Reo Kunimoto, and Yu Tokiwa, have regularly muted their opponents’ offensive capabilities before they can test Koga.

Will Albirex remain undefeated for the rest of the season? I don’t think so. They are too dependent on Tsuboi for the bulk of the goals and Lion City Sailors exposed Albirex’s vulnerability in Matchday 5 in their (2-2 Draw). Similarly, Balestier Khalsa demonstrated how they could nullify the White Swans threat (0-0 Draw) in Match Day 3.

The other issue lies with the depth of the squad. Albirex have been too reliant on the same group of players. They need a dependable back-up for Tsuboi and that should be a priority for the White Swans in the upcoming summer transfer window.

2nd – Lion City Sailors

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

The mega rich Sailors spared no expense in the winter transfer window. Signing Diego Lopes for a record 1.8m – the first multi-million dollar deal in the league’s history – sent shockwaves in the region. Yet, it wasn’t just a one-man signing. The Sailors recruited smartly this season, on paper at least.

Last season, a leaky Sailors’ defence proved problematic, which spurred the club to bring in Amirul Adli and veteran centre-back Jorge Fellipe from Tampines Rovers and Saudi second division side, Al-Tai FC, respectively. 

These signings add up to a dangerous battery of players, all orchestrated from the back by veteran custodian Hassan Sunny, whose leadership cannot be understated on this Sailors side.

It’s no wonder they’re in 2nd place on goal difference, having administered two of the most commanding victories in the league so far, a 5-0 win over Tanjong Pagar, and more recently, the 8-0 drubbing of Geylang.

All eyes are on them as they remain the hot favourite to dethrone the reigning champions from Japan.

3rd – Hougang United

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

I daresay that the Cheetahs have made the best transfers this past window and have sufficiently addressed most, if not all, issues that plagued them last campaign. Stipe’s departure during the suspension of the league meant that the goals also dried up for Hougang.

Clement Teo and company have wasted no time replacing Stipe, bringing in Khairul Nizam, journeyman forward Gilberto Fortunato, and arguably the hottest striker in the league right now, Tomoyuki Doi. Doi’s signing is arguably the signing of the season, and his finishing prowess is quite simply incredible. It is little wonder why the Japanese ace has notched in 11 goals already, three more than the man he was hired to replace, Stipe Plazibat.

Defensively, the Cheetahs have benefitted from a brilliant partnership between Lionel Tan and Maksat Dzhakybaliev. Both defenders are not perfect, but they have formed an impressive partnership. Add Anders Aplin, who could slot in either centre-back positions or as a right-back, to the mix, and you can easily rotate amongst the three.

Of course, Kaishu Yamazaki can be deployed as a central defender if need be, but Kaishu has undoubtedly flourished in his role in the heart of midfield. The ‘engine room’ of Hougang has established a solid partnership with Fabian Kwok, and they are arguably the best central midfield pairing of the SPL right now.

Idraki Adnan and Farhan Zulkifli are also fantastic players who have seemingly cemented their positions in the Hougang side. It would be interesting to see how they develop at the club.

Hougang may have lost their first game but have gone undefeated since. Resounding victories against Geylang, Tampines Rovers and Lion City Sailors have shown that they are a force to be reckoned with. They have indeed come close to losing two times (against Tanjong Pagar and Young Lions), but in both instances, the Cheetahs have been able to get themselves out of jail – a characteristic, my friends, that champions possess.

4th – Tampines Rovers

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

The Stags lost a real SPL icon in Jordan Webb after the end of last season. Amirul Adli’s departure to Lion City Sailors and Hannon Stephen’s release also significantly reduced the Stags’ depth in defence and inadvertently raised the average age.

In came Montenegrin Armin Bošnjak, Iman Hakim, Marc Ryan Tan, and Amirul Haikal. At the same time, the Stag’s defence was bolstered by the returning Irfan Najeeb. Truth be told, the real ace up the Stags’ sleeves is indeed the tactical genius that is Gavin Lee. On paper, the reinforcements that Tampines brought in pale in comparison to Amirul and Jordan. Yet, Gavin has somehow managed to make it work.

An opening day 3-3 draw against Sailors showed that the Stags had plenty of firepower left in their ranks. While the Stags overcame Balestier Khalsa (2-1) and Tanjong Pagar United (3-1), they were crushed by Hougang United (5-1). The team, however, responded in style with a 7-0 demolition of Young Lions.

Unlucky against Albirex, Tampines bounced back yet again with a 3-2 win over Eastern derby rivals Geylang International courtesy of a superb strike from super-sub Taufik Suparno.

Unfortunately for the Stags, they lose Shah Shahiran to National Service for the remainder of the season, and he will be sorely missed. Playing in a double pivot alongside Kyoga Nakamura in defensive midfield, Tampines may have to change their system. We witnessed shades of this against Geylang, where Nakamura was deployed as the sole defensive midfielder, with Iman Hakim and Yasir Hanapi occupying central midfield positions instead.

Gavin may dip his fingers in the summer transfer window for a new central defender. He is short in that position. Baihaikki is 37, and Daniel Bennet is 43. Madhu is the only candidate left. Of course, an Irfan Najeeb-Madhu Mohana pairing could work, but Irfan has been impressive in his role as a right-back. He could always promote from within. After all, Gavin has mentioned before, “if they are good enough, they are old enough.” but with the AFC Champions League supposedly taking place in June, securing more experienced heads in defence might be the way forward. 

Featured Photo Credits Go To The Singapore Premier League

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