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Visitors' firepower should see them edge past Eagles
Hougang United: The unassuming underdogs of S.League
Coach Balagumaran credits good balance in the team for Cheetahs' rise to the top
ALBIREX NIIGATA v
(Tomorrow, 7.30pm, Jurong East Stadium)
Surprise league leaders, fuelled by an in-form striker, backed by an indefatigable Japanese forward and led by a "chill" coach.
No, we're not talking about Leicester City, Jamie Vardy, Shinji Okazaki and Claudio Ranieri, who are on the verge of leading the Foxes to their maiden English Premier League title.
Instead, on our home soil, Hougang United are turning heads by leading the 2016 Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League for the first time in their history, with Stipe Plazibat grabbing five goals in five games, Fumiya Kogure pulling the strings in midfield and coach K Balagumaran adopting alternative training methods.
And the Cheetahs are keeping their fair share of clean sheets too, shutting out Home United (1-0), defending champions Brunei DPMM FC (0-0) and Balestier Khalsa (1-0), all at the Hougang Stadium.
With almost a brand new squad, few expected Hougang, last season's bottom side, to make much of an impact this year, even though they pulled off a transfer coup by signing 2015 S.League Player of the Year Kogure in pre-season.
Friendly results were a mixed bag as they beat amateur side Tiong Bahru 3-1 and the Garena Young Lions 4-2, but lost 2-0 to Tampines Rovers and Albirex Niigata, 3-2 to Warriors FC and were also defeated by Thai sides Suphanburi 2-1 and Air Force Central 3-1.
But, once the season started, they found a great balance between being hard to beat and finding the odd winner, amassing 10 points out of a possible 15 to lead the league by two going into the latest round of matches.
"Beating Home United in our first game really gave our boys the belief that we can do well and win games," said Bala, who is a firm believer in using yoga to calm and clear his players' minds pre- and post-match.
"There is good balance in our team. We have set-piece specialists in Fumiya and Stipe who can help us break deadlocks, and our local boys are keeping their heads down and doing well with our home fans showing great support.
"Nobody expected us to top the table and nobody expects us to continue to do so. Our target remains to finish in the top half and it's a challenge for the boys to see how long they can keep this up.
"We are the underdogs in every match, but I want every of our players to give of his best and the results should follow.
"We can do better in terms of finishing. Right now, it seems we are converting the tougher chances than the easy ones.
"I need Fumiya, (Jozef) Kaplan, Fairoz (Hasan) and even the midfielders and defenders to start scoring, so that we are not over-reliant on Stipe, who has done great to score all our goals (Hougang's only other goal was a Taufiq Muqminin own goal)."
Tomorrow, the Cheetahs will face an out-of-form Albirex Niigata whose players have failed to score in 285 minutes since they thrashed Garena Young Lions 5-0 in February.
Former Albirex player Kogure will put sentiment aside on his return to his former stomping ground at the Jurong East Stadium, as he eyes his first goal in Hougang colours.
The 26-year-old Japanese playmaker said: "Albirex are still a very good team even if they are not doing so well in recent games (the White Swans eked out a 1-1 draw against Balestier via an own goal, were held to a goalless draw by Geylang International and lost 2-0 to Warriors FC).
"They have good players such as Masaya Jitozono, Tatsuro Inui and Atsushi Kawata who are potential match-winners.
"They seem to play more long balls this season compared to last year, when they played more possession-based football.
"We have to be careful, but we are feeling good right now because there is a good atmosphere, good balance, good discipline and good communication under a good coach.
"Personally, I want a goal soon. I must score for the team and it would be special to get my first for Hougang against Albirex and beat them."
Eagles will be without suspended coach Hasrin
Geylang will be coached by Noor Ali tonight, as Hasrin sits in the stands
GEYLANG INTERNATIONAL v WARRIORS FC
(Tonight, 7.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz)
Along with title favourites Tampines Rovers, they are one of only two teams still unbeaten in the 2016 Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League.
But Geylang International's bid to extend that streak against Warriors FC at the Jalan Besar Stadium tonight has become a little more complicated, as they will have to do without head coach Hasrin Jailani occupying his customary position on the bench.
Hasrin was sent off against Albirex Niigata last month following his outburst at a couple of unfavourable penalty decisions and was hit with a one-match suspension.
The rookie coach will watch the game from the stands and assistant coach Mohd Noor Ali will make the calls from the dugout.
While Hasrin's suspension is a blow, Eagles captain Isa Halim stressed that the team have taken it in stride.
"There's no point thinking about what you can't change; we'd rather focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the Warriors," said the 29-year-old former Singapore star, before a training session at Safra Tampines.
"We also have a good stand-in in Noor Ali, who's been with Hasrin for as long as I can remember, and he has earned the respect of the players.
"I'm sure he can do a good job."
Former national winger Noor Ali, 41, who played with Hasrin in the Geylang team who last won the S.League title in 2001, has no qualms about stepping up for the game.
"Being on the bench (in charge) for the first time adds a bit of pressure on me, but I'm sure I will settle down once the game gets going, especially because I've been in the football scene for quite some time," he said.
"We have many experienced players who have witnessed such a scenario before. Of course, I can't take instructions from Hasrin on the bench, so that's where my decision-making is very important."
This is Hasrin's first season as an S.League coach and the 41-year-old insisted he has learnt his lesson.
NEED FOR CONTROL
"It's not easy being suspended for a game; now I realise how important it is to control myself because the team need everyone," he said.
"We are doing well in terms of how we started off as compared to last season, but we should have been able to win some of the games we drew."
The Eagles have won one and drew four games in the S.League, with the lone victory coming against bottom-ranked side Young Lions in February, and Hasrin wants his charges to start picking up the three points.
"We are still unbeaten, but it's very important for us to get maximum points in our next game. We are creating chances, but we need to convert those chances into goals," he said.
Noor Ali, who attributed the lack of a killer touch in front of goal to the club's relatively new squad, warned of a tough match ahead, especially as the Warriors are fresh off a morale-boosting 2-0 victory over the White Swans last month.
"They have good players like Madhu (Mohana) and an experienced goalkeeper in Yazid (Yasin). Their foreigners have blended in well and they have got good results," he said.
"But we also know we have a team to compete with them. We have worked on a plan for two weeks so, hopefully, it works."
Isa added: "I know Jorg (Steinebrunner, Warriors coach) is facing his former club and he wants to win it badly. But, for us, it's just another game to collect the three points."
Steinebrunner's Warriors to face his old club Geylang
Steinebrunner wants Warriors to stay focused in clash with former club Geylang
After a difficult start to the 2016 Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League season, Jorg Steinebrunner and Warriors FC are starting to get into their groove.
Without a win in their first two games, the Warriors have surged to within two points of surprise leaders Hougang United with 2-0 victories over Garena Young Lions and Albirex Niigata, sandwiched by a 1-1 draw with Balestier Khalsa.
They may be hitting a purple patch, but they face a big test against Geylang International tonight.
The Eagles are one of two teams yet to taste defeat this season (the other are Tampines Rovers), having won one and drawn four of their five matches.
Steinebrunner is no stranger to the Eagles having coached them for two years before taking the reins at Warriors FC, while several of his current players such as Yazid Yasin, Kento Fukuda and Hafiz Nor were all heroes at the Bedok Stadium in recent seasons.
All points to a thriller for the "live" match at the Jalan Besar Stadium, although Steinebrunner insists it is important that his side do not get caught up in the occasion.
"As a professional team, you want to be motivated for every game," the German told The New Paper before training on Wednesday.
"Of course, Geylang are my former employers and that is the same for some of my players, but is it a special game?
"No, because we're living in a professional world and to put special mention on this game would mean we risk losing focus on other games."
He might not have enjoyed the best start to life at Choa Chu Kang Stadium, but Steinebrunner was always confident that it was only a matter of time before his team turned the corner.
He explained: "Even though we got only one point from our first two games, I thought we were quite decent performance-wise.
"Yes, results are the most important in football but, to get the results, you need to have the performance.
"I always believe that if you keep doing the right things and performing to a certain level, the result will take care of itself and that's what happened in the last three games.
"So it's important to settle well and keep it over the 90 minutes on Friday and get the good performance against Geylang."
One player who could decide the outcome of the game is French striker Jonathan Behe, who has scored in five consecutive games.
Another key player who has enjoyed a fine start to the season after joining from Tampines Rovers is Shaiful Esah, who has excelled in the attacking midfielder's role thrust upon him by Steinebrunner.
"Firstly, I have to say I'm very happy with all of the players I have and I don't normally mention players individually," said Steinebrunner.
"But, with Shaiful, you know what he can bring to the team - he has one of the best left feet in probably all of South-east Asia.
"He can keep the ball well, he can pick out players with his passing range and, with players of that ability, you look to get them more involved, which is why we pushed him into a more advanced position.
"When you want up to build up the play, you need to have good ball players and that's what guys like Shaiful and Nikola (Rak) do for us."
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'Foxes deserve to win title'
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The EPL resumes after the international break. All eyes will be on the title race and our writer predicts how the contenders will fare in the run-in
Current position: 1st, 66 points after 31 games, goal difference: 23
Leicester City are in the driver's seat to complete the most unfathomable fairy-tale in the history of the EPL.
Powered by the double-scoring act of Jamie Vardy (19 goals) and Riyad Mahrez (16 goals), the Foxes are top of the Premiership table, five points ahead of nearest rivals Tottenham.
Looking at the quality of their opposition in the title run-in, manager Claudio Ranieri knows that the championship is theirs to lose.
In the corresponding fixtures with the seven teams left to play against, they have won all but two - which they drew.
The trickiest spell will come right at the end, when they take on Manchester United, Everton and Chelsea in their final three matches.
It is therefore crucial for them to build up a comfortable cushion before that.
Some pundits point out that Leicester tend to struggle more against the smaller teams, who are usually more defensive and thus limit Leicester's counter-attacking strengths.
An injury to either Vardy or Mahrez will also almost certainly end their dream.
Ranieri, who himself has never won a top-division title in all the countries he has coached in, will be keeping his fingers crossed that his team can end the season the way they started it.
How Leicester deal with the growing pressure in the coming weeks will determine their fate.
But I suspect there are still some twists to the title race and they will suffer heartbreak on the final day of the season, when Spurs finish level on points with them and pip them to the title on goal difference.
Remaining fixtures and predictions
Southampton (H) - Draw
Sunderland (A) - Win
West Ham (H) - Lose
Swansea (H) - Win
Man United (A) - Draw
Everton (H) - Win
Chelsea (A) - Lose
Projected total: 77 points. Leicester to finish second to Spurs on goal difference.
Current position: 2nd, 61 points after 31 games, goal difference: 32
Like Leicester, Tottenham Hotspur are the surprise contenders this season.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino has taken the youngest team in the Premiership to heights the long-suffering fans could not have imagined at the start of the season.
Harry Kane, 22, has proven his pedigree by continuing to knock in the goals after a breakout 2014/15 campaign.
With 21 goals, he is the top scorer in the top flight.
But he has help from an unlikely source - Dele Alli.
Just last season, the 19-year-old midfielder was still playing for second-tier Championship side Milton Keynes Dons.
He signed for Tottenham in February 2015 for an initial fee of £5 million ($9.73m) and what an inspired signing he has turned out to be.
Alli has scored seven goals and set up nine for his teammates this season, and has broken into the England first team.
While Kane and Alli deliver the goods in attack, the presence of players such as Toby Alderweireld and Kyle Walker in defence is the reason behind Spurs conceding the fewest goals (24) in the Premiership.
It's their inexperience in a title race that seems to be their biggest weakness.
Three tough games in their remaining fixtures stand out - Liverpool (away), Man United (home) and Chelsea (away).
Clear those obstacles, and Spurs may be on the way to winning their first league title since 1961. And I'm backing them to make up the five-point gap on Leicester and win the title on goal difference.
Remaining fixtures and predictions
Liverpool (A) - Lose
Man United (H) - Win
Stoke (A) - Win
West Brom (H) - Win
Chelsea (A) Draw
Southampton (H) - Win
Newcastle (A) - Win
Projected total: 77 points. Spurs to win title on goal difference.
Current position: 3rd, 55 points after 30 games, goal difference: 18
Arsenal fans have every right to vent their frustration at manager Arsene Wenger.
In a season which none of the traditional contenders look interested in winning the league, Arsenal have failed to take their chance.
Despite having more star players than they have in years, the Gunners have been terribly inconsistent.
Again, their mental strength has been called into question. They crumbled when it mattered.
After beating Leicester last month to move within two points of the Foxes, they picked up just one point from the next three Premiership games.
The exit from the Champions League may be a good thing, since the two games against Barcelona seemed to have affected their focus on fighting for the title.
A long injury list isn't making things any easier for Wenger.
On paper, they have a reasonably easy run-in, with West Ham (away) and Man City (away) looking like their toughest games, although the clashes with relegation candidates Sunderland (away) and Norwich (home) are by no means walkovers.
However, with Leicester 11 points ahead of them, Arsenal may have left it too late to rescue their season.
Their only chance of winning a first league title since 2004 rests largely on both Leicester and Spurs cracking under the pressure.
And they can only hope.
Remaining fixtures and predictions
Watford (H) - Win
West Ham (A) - Draw
Crystal Palace (H) - Win
West Brom (H) - Win
Sunderland (A) - Win
Norwich (H) - Win
Man City (A) - Lose
Aston Villa (H) - Win
Projected total: 74 points. Arsenal to finish third.
Current position: 4th, 51 points after 30 games, goal difference: 20
Manchester City's Premiership campaign has been underwhelming, to say the least.
Some believe that the mid-season announcement of Pep Guardiola taking over the team at the end of this term had destabilised the side significantly.
But, for a team boasting the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Joe Hart ( to be fighting just to stay in the top four must be a humbling experience.
The Citizens face a real danger of finishing outside of the top four for the first time since 2010 - West Ham and Man United are just one point behind them.
Once again, their performances against the big teams have been found wanting.
Out of the five matches they have played against top-four teams this season, they have picked up just one measly point - a 0-0 draw with Leicester last December.
There have been some heavy losses along the way too, such as the 4-1 away loss to Spurs, the 4-1 and 3-0 defeats by Liverpool, and the 3-1 home reverse against Leicester.
Their trademark ability to finish a campaign strongly will be severely tested.
With 15 points separating them from leaders Leicester, they will be better off focusing their efforts on qualifying for next season's Champions League instead.
Remaining fixtures and predictions
Bournemouth (A) - Draw
West Brom (H) - Win
Chelsea (A) - Win
Newcastle (A) - Draw
Stoke (H) - Win
Southampton (A) - Lose
Arsenal (H) - Win
Swansea (A) - Win
Projected total: 68 points.