Asian Football

The SPL Resumes: The Title Race Preview

With the Singapore Premier League resuming in a matter of days, I decided to take this time to preview the second half of the SPL season. Even though there are only 8 teams in the SPL, the title race is certainly exciting, and every team in the top half of the league is certainly a contender. Tampines Rovers, Hougang United, Lion City Sailors and Albirex Niigata have clearly distinguished themselves from the rest of the pact. The gap between Albirex [1st] and Tampines [4th] is only 6 points and anything can happen.

Besides the title race, the race for golden boot is also heating up. Tomoyuki Doi [Hougang] still leads the charts with 14 goals but Stags forward Boris Kopitović [12], Albirex frontman Kiyoshiro Tsuboi [11] and Sailors’ seasoned finisher Stipe Plazibat [9] are all hot on his heels. So in some ways, the race for the golden boot is a microcosm of the title race at play – it’s close and still up for grabs with no clear indicator as to who will finish on top.

So what have these top-four teams done during the mid-season transfer window and what issues prevail in each camp?

Albirex Niigata (S)

Mid-Season Transfer

Image Credits: Albirex Niigata (s) & Singapore Premier League

The White Swans, last season’s champions, have been stellar this season and find themselves at the top of the league yet again. However, they have a major problem on their hands. Kiyoshiro Tsuboi seems to be out for the rest of the season and they need to dig deep to find another source for consistent and regular goals.

Don’t get me wrong. Albirex has a couple of players that can find the back of the net. Ryoya Taniguchi, Kuraba Kondo and Takahiro Tezuka have all stepped up to the plate during Tsuboi’s absence. Yet, to be brutally honest, these players are no Tsuboi. He was the main man up front, and his 11 goals in 9 SPL games is a testament to his clinical prowess. To give some context, Taniguchi [4]. Kondo [4] and Tezuka [3] have mustered 10 goals amongst them, which is one shy from Tsuboi’s 11.

In the transfer department, there has been minimal movement during the mid-season window, with only Nathanael Chin departing the club and Hilman Norisham arriving from the Singapore Sports School. Both moves have minimal impact to the Albirex first team in my opinion. Nathanael was a fringe player for the Swans, and Hilman is not likely to be thrown into the Albirex first team anytime soon.

While questions linger regarding their offensive ability should Tsuboi remain on the sidelines, their defensive prowess is unparalleled in the league. The Albirex back four of Hashioka, Yamashita, Kunimoto and Tokiwa is often impenetrable. Even when defences are breached, the Swans have Takahiro Koga, who is a dependable custodian. If the rumours are true that Tsuboi is indeed out for the rest of the season and Albirex’s offensive ability does become an issue, their defense has to be flawless.

In addition, Albirex does have exciting Singaporean prospects within their ranks. Players like Ong Yu En, Fikri Junaidi and Nicky Melvin Singh may still be teenagers, but they have made significant contributions and are important figures in this Albirex squad.

Yet, given how other teams are shaping up, Albirex Niigata would be kept on their toes till the end of the season in what has truly been a four-way battle for the Singapore Premier League title.

Lion City Sailors

Mid-Season Transfers

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League & Lion City Sailors

Lion City Sailors sit in second place, only a point behind the reigning league champions. While they have certainly improved as a unit since the last campaign, anything but the league title come end of the season would be deemed a failure. It isn’t hard to see why. At the start of the season, the club brought in Amirul Adli and Faris Ramli to add to their slew of national team stalwarts as well as splashing 1.8m Euros to acquire Diego Lopes.

They haven’t let up during the mid-season window as well. Hariss Harun’s return to Singapore certainly generated a lot of buzz, but all eyes will be on their new head coach, 2020 AFC Champions League winner Kim Do Hoon. Fans would expect the former Korean international (who scored a winner against the Brazil national team) to make an instant impact.

With regards to mid-season departures, Abdil Qaiyyim has left to greener pastures at Geylang while Ho Wai Loon has been loaned out to Balestier Khalsa. Ho Wai Loon, in particular, will be looking at making a positive impact at Balestier following such a lengthy spell on the sidelines.

Since their 2-2 against Albirex Niigata (S) on April 7, 2021, the Sailors have gone on to enjoy a six-game unbeaten streak. Kim would want to continue that blistering form once the league resumes. However, despite their impressive winning record, one area that the Sailors need to concentrate more on is their defensive organization. With only three Centre backs left at the club – Tajeli Salamat, Amirul Adli and Jorge Felipe – Kim will certainly ponder over the best centre-back partnership for the upcoming league fixtures.

The mid-season break would offer Kim that chance to do just that – restructure the Sailors’ defence and instill his own philosophy into the team. Most importantly, Kim would probably figure out a system to rotate the squad so that players on the bench and in reserves have ample game time to remain match fit so that they can be primed and ready when called upon. What is certain though is that many will be watching the Sailors once the season resumes.

Hougang United

Mid-Season Transfer

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League & Hougang United

With Izwan Mahbud’s arrival, I daresay that Hougang United are the most balanced team on paper with quality in depth all across the field. I’m not saying that Ridhuan Barudin and Mukundan Maran are bad keepers. Quite the contrary. They have produced phenomenal saves and have come to their team’s rescue in several instances. However, to gun for the title, consistency is needed, and Izwan Mahbud can offer that consistency after a run of games.

Afiq Yunos has left the club and returned to Geylang International but the Cheetahs won’t be too bothered by his departure. Anders Aplin, Lionel Tan and Maksat Dzhakybaliev were all above him in the pecking order. The latter two have formed a formidable central defensive partnership and given that a player of Afiq’s calibre should be having more game time, the move to Geylang made sense.

Hougang United boast one of the most lethal offenses in the Singapore Premier League. They have plenty of options up front in the form of goalscoring machine Tomoyuki Doi, Gilberto Fortunato and Khairul Nizam. On the wings, they are blessed with depth. Wonderkid Farhan Zulkifli, rising star Idraki Adnan, free kick maestro Sahil Suhaimi and stalwart Shawal Anuar are all major threats to any defense. In the middle of the park, Fabian Kwok and Kaishu Yamazaki have been phenomenal but Afiq Noor and Nikesh Singh Sindhu are decent options as well. If the information I’ve gathered is correct, then the Cheetahs also have Zulfahmi Arifin – which simply proves my point on their depth, what an addition to have.

Only 4 points behind top spot and 3 points behind second place, the Cheetahs need to ensure that they do not slip up in the second half of the season. The club would look towards experienced heads like Sharil Ishak and incoming Izwan Mahbud to guide them to the title or at the very least, an AFC Champions League spot. Continental competition is very much a possibility, and only a series of major hiccups can rob them of that opportunity.

Tampines Rovers

Image Credits: Singapore Premier League & Tampines Rovers

Currently, the Stags are in the midst of their maiden AFC Champions League voyage and despite not earning a point thus far in the campaign, they have done really well. Gavin has clearly set up his team well and has stuck to his principles of playing positive football regardless of the opposition. Hopefully, the Stags can adapt the lessons learnt from the Champions League run in the league because they need the extra drive if they were to have any chance at clinching the SPL title.

Having played one extra game (bringing the total matches played to 12) than the rest of the top-four teams, Tampines find themselves in fourth place with 21 points. While they may be 12 points above 5th placed Balestier Khalsa, they are 6 points behind league leaders Albirex Niigata. This gap could increase to 9 points if the Swans beat the Sailors. With 9 more league games to go, it is going to be a challenge for the Stags to climb up the ranks, especially if Hougang and Lion City Sailors don’t take their feet off the gas pedal.

Thankfully, the Stags have acquired a new central defensive midfield partner for Kyoga Nakamura. Following Shah Shahiran’s enlistment into National Service, Nakamura has been without an effective double-pivot partner and is often deployed as a single defensive midfielder behind Yasir Hanapi and Iman Hakim. They can revert to the double-pivot system if they choose to do so with Huzaifah Aziz, who returns to Tampines Rovers after finally recovering from a long-term injury.

Speaking of injuries, Taufik Suparno has been sorely missed during their AFC Champions League run but he should be available for selection when the SPL resumes. The super-sub, Singapore’s very own Chicharito, has been a difference-maker for Tampines and he will have to continue delivering when called upon.

While the focus right now is finishing the AFC Champions League group stage in a strong fashion, Gavin and co. would probably have the league in the back of their minds. The players would know that to play at such a high level once again, they need to finish as the highest placed Singaporean side. After tasting elite football once, they might go all out for yet another bite of Champions League action.

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