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Tampines-Albirex clash could decide S.League title
Meeting of top two already being billed as a title decider in some quarters
TAMPINES ROVERS v ALBIREX NIIGATA
(Tomorrow, 8pm, Jurong West Stadium)
It has been billed as the biggest game of this Great Eastern Yeo's S.League season and, indeed, the stakes could not be higher for the two protagonists, Albirex Niigata and Tampines Rovers.
Albirex, who set their sights on winning the treble at the start of the season, are seven points clear at the top of the league after 10 straight wins.
Closest challengers Tampines, whom they meet in a blockbuster clash at Jurong West Stadium tomorrow, are also on a roll, after winning their last three matches under new coach Akbar Nawas, scoring 13 goals in the process.
A win for either side could prove crucial, as it would either see the White Swans open up a commanding 10-point lead with only 11 games left, or allow Tampines to reduce the gap to just four points.
Akbar was keen to play down the "must-win" tag for this game, insisting his focus was on getting his charges to produce their best performance.
"We prefer to go into every game focusing on the process rather than the outcome," he told The New Paper, after yesterday's training session at Jurong West Stadium.
"The process is able to influence the outcome, so we rather think about that and put aside whether or not it's a game we must win.
"We'll go out there and perform to the best of our abilities and see what happens… Whether our best is good enough or not, the outcome will tell us.
"Even now, with 12 games to go and being seven points behind Albirex, it's already a significant hurdle but, as long as it's mathematically possible, there's always something that can be done."
While Albirex's form, along with the fact that they have only lost once this season, puts them in a strong position, coach Naoki Naruo is aware his side will face determined opponents.
The Japanese coach told TNP: "The atmosphere in the team is very good, thanks to our winning run, but we've also conceded quite a number of goals in the past three games.
"Although we are in a very good moment, this is something the players have to be aware of.
"Tampines are a very strong team and they're definitely in the title race so, if we can beat them on Friday, the 10-point lead will be crucial for us.
"Despite winning the amount of games we have, the players know there were certain matches where we could easily have been on the losing end.
"For us, the best way is to just focus on each game at a time and try to do our best."
With a younger squad at Naruo's disposal, it appears the White Swans will have the stronger legs as the campaign approaches the home stretch.
However, with a host of seasoned campaigners with title-winning experience, like Mustafic Fahrudin, Noh Rahman and Ismadi Mukhtar in the Stags' ranks, Tampines have experience on their side.
"Definitely, experienced players like Billy (Mehmet), Mustafic, even JP (Jermaine Pennant) will carry us through," said Akbar.
"These games are made for them as their experience will count against such opponents, but we still require the whole team to work hard for us to get the result."
Home, Geylang both out to stop the rot
Home and Geylang have flattered to deceive, but both teams aim to finish strongly
HOME UNITED v GEYLANG INTERNATIONAL
(Tonight, 8pm, Bishan Stadium)
Both teams got off to slow starts at the beginning of the season, but found their feet just before the mid-year international break and strung together a decent run of games.
Now, though, as the second round of the 2016 Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League draws to a close, both Geylang International and Home United's title charge seems to have fizzled out as quickly as it began.
When the teams line up for their league clash at the Bishan Stadium tonight, members of the local football fraternity will be wondering where it all went wrong.
"If I knew, you wouldn't be asking me this," said Geylang coach Hasrin Jailani with a chuckle, before his team's training session at the Bedok Stadium.
"I cannot pinpoint an exact reason. I think there is more than one factor involved.
"This is our first season together as a team, my first season as a coach as well.
"Most of the teams have been together for at least a year, so it will take time for us to gel and play a certain style.
"After the international break as well, the players were a bit rusty. But you cannot use these as excuses so, as a coach, I will have to look at ways to change this."
Geylang and Home were touted as dark horses for the title before the start of the season, after raiding the now defunct LionsXII for star names like Gabriel Quak and Sahil Suhaimi (now with Geylang) and Faris Ramli, Khairul Nizam and Zulfahmi Arifin (Home United).
After a poor start, many thought that both teams had turned the corner after the Eagles won three games in succession while the Protectors chalked up 15 points from five matches, heading into the international break.
On the resumption of the S.League, both sides fared dismally again, losing three games each.
While Home are in third spot, they are a whopping 16 points behind league leaders Albirex Niigata and only four ahead of Geylang, who are sixth.
Hasrin, however, believes there is time for his charges to reverse their fortunes.
"We have to continue with what we have been doing this season, playing attacking football but, most importantly, putting the ball in the back of the net, which we have not done in recent games.
"I am confident that if we can get back our form, fourth, third or even second place is not far off," said the 40-year-old.
Home assistant coach Robin Chitrakar is also keen to end the league campaign on a high, starting against Geylang tonight.
"After analysing our recent performances, I think that defensive lapses and individual mistakes are what have cost us so far this season," said the former Singapore international.
"We are not satisfied with our performances and we will not give up until improvements are made.
"Our game against Geylang will be a case of two teams who are in a similar vein of form and also share similar playing philosophies.
"We are expecting a tough match, but we are aiming for a positive result that will give us confidence going into the final round of the season."
Our game against Geylang will be a case of two teams who are in a similar vein of form and also share similar playing philosophies.
— Home assistant coach Robin Chitrakar