Asian Football

Our SPL Stars To Watch: A SoccerKakis X Lions Of Asia Initiative

Payers Jointly Selected By SoccerKakis and Lions Of Asia

In a matter of days, we see the resumption of the second leg of the Singapore Premier League. While we will be closely monitoring the Singapore Premier League title race, we plan to track a number of players until the end of the season.

Who is “we“? If the title of the article hasn’t given it away just yet, we’re collaborating with our pals from Lions of Asia to select a starting XI of players to watch from now till the end of the season.

So who makes this team? Read on to find out!

Syazwan Buhari [GK]

In goal, we have Syazwan Buhari. Honestly, we could have gone ahead with Izwan Mahbud, who is on the road to redemption following his poor national team performances. However, Syazwan gets the nod for several reasons.

While his team may not have always yielded the best results during their AFC Champions League group stage fixtures, Syazwan has stepped up to the plate when it has mattered. Besides saving two penalties against Gamba Osaka, the shot-stopper made multiple saves. In fact, he’s ranked sixth for the total number of saves [21] by AFC themselves. Not too shabby for your maiden voyage on Asia’s premier continental competition. That’s a fine addition to the 32 saves he’s already made in the SPL.

Here’s the thing, Syazwan has clearly grown as a player, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can translate his fine form in the Champions League to the SPL. It’ll be even more challenging for opposition forwards to find the ball in the back of the net if he does.

Kazuki Hashioka [RB]

Captain Hashioka is once again leading the White Swans to the top of the table. The work never stops for the Albirex skipper as he’s a constant presence on the pitch, contributing to both the attack and defence. Since 2020, the right-back has been a regular starter. He is surely one of the first names on the first-eleven team sheet as the only over-age Japanese player.

Providing deadly crosses into the box, Hashioka has four assists to his name this season – the same number as other influential players like Kiyoshiro Tsuboi and Ryoya Taniguchi. While he has also registered 15 shots as a fullback this season, he has yet to score. That might change in the second half of the season as he

Nevertheless, many of the Albirex Niigata’s goals have seen the involvement of Hashioka one way or another. Furthermore, the defender is part of one of the tightest defences of the league – one that has only conceded six goals. Will Hashioka carry his form into the second half of the season? We think so.

Lionel Tan [CB]

We still believe that Lionel Tan should have been called up to the national team. Lionel Tan has drastically improved as a player this season and some might even call him part of the Cheetah’s wall alongside Maksat. Besides his impressive qualities as a defender,

In addition to his defensive acumen, he has also demonstrated his leadership abilities. Despite being 22 years old, he has already captained the side twice this season. Yet, even when he isn’t donning the armband, you can hear the central defender howling instructions at his teammates and spurring them on.

Lionel is your typical no-nonsense defender as well. He has racked up four yellow cards, but those are primarily from tactical fouls. While he is insanely passionate, he displays the maturity to keep his head in the game. Lionel also has contributed to his team’s offensive displays as well and contributed two goals while making two assists – which makes him the third joint top-scorer for the Cheetahs alongside his partner in central defence…

Maksat Dzhakybaliev [CB]

That’s right. Maksat also has two goals to his name but impressively, the Maksat-Lionel Tan partnership has conceded a total of 18 goals. That might seem like a large number, but when you consider that the Cheetahs have conceded the third least goals in the SPL, you have to admit it’s impressive.

Like Lionel, the Kyrgistani is also a very physical player and is known for his almost-perfectly executed tackles. Well, mostly perfect, because Maksat has also committed the most fouls in the league (28). Thankfully, he only has three yellow cards to his name and would you seriously change the way he tackles. He is a hard man and he is proud.

Maksat has come a long way from his first season at Hougang United and is truly blossoming into a rock in the back for the Cheetahs. An integral member alongside Lionel, the future is bright for the exciting young prospect. The only question is if he fulfils his potential in Singapore or abroad because foreign clubs will surely be eyeing him if he keeps up his displays.

Shodai Nishikawa [LB]

The Japanese left-midfielder has reinvented himself as a left-wingback for the Jaguars. It is a position in which he has thrived lately. Shodai is known for making his overlapping runs – something which he does a lot of that in-game due to his commendable work ethic. Darting down the flank, he loves to cut in and terrorise opposition defences, either by picking out teammates waiting in the centre of the box or trying for goal himself.

After 11 games, Shodai has scored 2 goals and made 2 assists to his teammates. A respectable tally for a team that currently sits second from bottom. If Tanjong Pagar wants to finish the season higher up the table, Shodai’s performances would surely matter. 

Besides contributing to the attack, Shodai has done a decent job fulfiling his defensive responsibilities. However, he has to improve his interception. Out of a total of 140 challenges made, he has only won 56.2% of them. Nevertheless, Shodai is a key figure for the Jaguars and it will be interesting to see how he performs in the second half of the season.

Kyoga Nakamura [CM]

Tampines Rovers can always depend on Kyoga Nakamura. The Tampines midfield maestro has the skills to pay the bills and has developed into quite the complete midfielder. While he may have started out as an attacking midfielder, he has also established himself as a competent holding lynchpin in the middle of the park.

Statistically, Nakamura is also the midfield general for this Tampines side. Holding the ball and unleashing swift driven passes or over the top through balls, he’s mustered a total of 891 passes, which is an average of 74.25 per game. Besides helping to supply the ball to his teammates, Nakamura has been busy finding trying to find the back of the net himself. With an average of 86.75 shot accuracy, he has registered three goals thus far. One of the goals includes a long-range screamer against Young Lions two months ago. This effort 45 yards out even earned him the Goal of the Month award for May.

With these stats, it is little wonder why Nakamura has never missed a minute of gameplay. Quite literally, he has played every single minute of SPL action. 

Shahdan Sulaiman [CM]

The set-piece specialist still has a lot to offer despite turning 33 years old in May. The defensive midfielder may have to contend with Hariss Harun for a spot in the starting lineup due to the under-23 rule. However, if Kim Do Hoon can somehow fit both Hariss and Shahdan in his team, his midfield would be formidable.

This season, Shahdan has been reliable once again. He has scored two goals, and yes, you’ve probably guessed it, they came from free kicks. In fact, Shahdan’s last ten goals have come from outside the box – 7 of those were direct free kicks and the rest were long-range screamers.

The veteran midfielder has also racked up 4 assists this season, which is the highest tally for a local player, and it’s really no surprise at all. Shahdan is known for his pinpoint passing and has the highest passing accuracy in the league this season. Whether he starts games or comes off the bench, don’t take your eyes off the midfield extraordinaire. If you blink, you might just miss Shahdan making key passes that penetrate the opposition defence.

Armin Bošnjak [LM]

When Jordan Webb left Tampines Rovers at the end of last season, it was the end of an era. Whoever the Stags would find to replace the talismanic Canadian had big boots to fill. That man was to be Armin, but the Montenegrin needed some time to adapt to the Singapore Premier League. Well, he has finally adjusted to life with Tampines, and his eight assists demonstrate what he can become – the one true King of Assists.

Yes, he has only one goal to his name, but I don’t think this is too much of an issue. Armin is a different type of player from Jordan. The Canadian winger operated more like an inside forward who often used his pace and dribbling technique to take on forwards and drive towards goals. On the other hand, Armin is more like your traditional wide man who stretches defences by sticking to the sidelines and produces excellent crosses from the wings. Again, a different type of player, but perhaps Armin is on the road to 100 assists like how Jordan managed to notch 100 goals during his time in Singapore.

He may not have had the best outing during the AFC Champions League, but hopefully the lanky Montenegrin continues his fine SPL form. Armin recorded a hat trick of assists in their second-last fixture (against Balestier Khalsa) before the mid-season break. The game after, he recorded two more. The race to crown Assist King is upon us, ladies and gentlemen, but I do believe that Armin will trump the other contenders.

Gabriel Quak [RM]

The 2020 SPL Player of the Year is still a very influential member of the Lion City Sailors squad despite the heavy reinforcements this year. The Sailors have many players who can play in the wings and competition for places is certainly stiff. After all, with Faris Ramli, Hafiz Nor and Adam Swandi all competent wingers who can play either flank, Gabriel has done well to cement his place amidst this backdrop.

Gabriel has already scored eight times this season, which is three more than the 2020 campaign. He also has four assists to his name, and while that may be five less than his total tally last season, the Sailors have shared more responsibility when it comes to supplying assists this season than they did last year. Indeed more spread out, expect Gabriel to add to both his goal and assist count by the end of the season.

After a poor showing during the World Cup qualifiers, can Gabriel end the season strongly with the title? 

Diego Lopes [CAM]

Since arriving from Rio Ave FC earlier this season on a €1.8 million transfer, the “Million Dollar Man” has shown why he is one of the best players in the league. Besides scoring five goals and making four assists, there appears to be more stability in the Sailors’ midfield whenever Diego plays.

It’ll be interesting to see how Diego gets deployed following the appointment of the 2020 AFC Champions League winner Kim Do Hoon as head coach. Hariss Harun’s arrival could also benefit Diego in the long run. Having someone like Hariss stabilise the midfield would allow the Brazilian to move forward more.

Expect to see the Brazilian express himself more. He already has won 23 fouls, proving that defenders find it hard to contain him.  A record-breaking transfer fee comes with a lot of pressure, and you can bet that Diego will be expected to help keep the Sailors afloat and salvage the vessel should it ever sink.

Tomoyuki Doi [CF]

“Boy, oh boy, it’s Tomoyuki Doi!” I already miss Patrick Kinghorn.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that Hougang United’s title hopes rest with the Japanese forward since other squad members had made their mark when it mattered the most. Yet, one cannot deny Tomoyuki Doi’s importance to the Cheetahs. 14 goals in 11 games, he is Hougang’s biggest threat moving forward and he just needs half a chance to take his shot.

I mean, the numbers don’t lie. Besides leading the goalscoring charts, Doi also leads in two key stats for any forward – shots and shots on target. The hitman has registered 57 shots, with 34 of them finding the target. In addition, besides scoring a ton of goals, Doi has been instrumental in Hougang’s build-up play and has made five assists this season. A complete forward, he is a hassle for defenders to man-mark.

Doi is probably adding more to his tally before the end of the season, but he will face tough competition from a few other contenders for the SPL Golden Boot award. Boris Kopitovic has 12 goals and is hot on his heels. Close by is Kiyoshiro Tsuboi but the Japanese forward is still yet to return to full fitness. Stipe Plazibat is no stranger to being the top scorer after clinching the golden boot award last season. However, under Kim Do Hoon, Stipe may find his best form yet.

As such, Doi is the one to watch for this season. He symbolises the race for the Golden Boot.

Image Credits: Image Credits: Albirex Niigata (S), Hougang United , Lion City Sailors, Tampines Rovers & Tanjong Pagar United

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