Another tight S.League season in store, say experts
With the arrival of Pennant and quality spread evenly among the clubs, the 21st edition of the S.League is set to be more exciting
The race for the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League title has gone down to the wire five times in the last six seasons.
According to some experts in the local football fraternity, the competitive nature of Singapore's professional football league is set to go up another notch, as its 21st edition kicks off tomorrow.
Said S.League chief executive officer Lim Chin: "From the highly publicised pre-season build-up, I think it is great that every club want to strive for silverware and I would imagine it will be another very competitive and exciting season.
"All the clubs have strengthened their squads this season... (and) I see a lot more youth coming through the ranks.
"I think this could mean the games will be played a lot faster with higher tempo and intensity."
Steve Kean, the former Blackburn Rovers manager who is head coach of defending champions Brunei DPMM, knows his team will have to perform at a higher level than last season to keep the S.League trophy in Brunei.
"Yes, I'll go with the talk that it'll be a tighter season," said the Scot, the S.League's reigning Coach of the Year.
"Two seasons ago, maybe you would go play a team near the bottom of the table and say, 'Okay, that's three points for us'. That's not going to happen any more.
"I genuinely believe every week, any team can win their match."
Turn up at the matches, enjoy the football and support your clubs. Singapore football needs your support. — S.League CEO Lim Chin (above)
Former Warriors FC coach Richard Bok believes big-spending Tampines Rovers are the clear favourites to win their first S.League title since 2013.
The Stags have signed a host of national players from the disbanded LionsXII outfit, and also added a marquee name to their squad in former Arsenal and Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant.
"On paper, Tampines should be a shoo-in for the title," said Bok, who is the S.League's most successful coach with four title triumphs.
"They had a strong team last year but somehow didn't get some things right.
"This year, with new signings Fazrul Nawaz (who scored 18 goals for Warriors last year), Billy Mehmet (the joint-fourth highest scorer in the Malaysian Super League last year) and Pennant, they have the firepower to go all the way.
"DPMM had to cut down their number of foreigners (from five to three) but they still have a strong backbone, so I think they can still challenge.
"It'll be interesting... And I think there could be some surprises here and there."
Bok also challenged the S.League clubs to build on the hype and publicity generated by Tampines' signing of Pennant.
"Hopefully, we can see a lot more of the S.League In the papers, and on social media," he said.
"Clubs can do things like weekly magazines or match programmes too, like we used to (at Warriors).
"Maybe clubs can also try to lure more former Premier League players like Pennant, who are not yet at the tail-end of their careers.
"There are players like him who are in it not for the money but because they want a new challenge.
"Hopefully, (they) can light up the S.League."
Lim hopes there will be healthy numbers at this season's S.League matches, after all the hype in pre-season.
He has this message for local football fans: "Turn up at the matches, enjoy the football and support your clubs.
"Singapore football needs your support."
Champs DPMM still confident, despite new rule on foreigners
What a difference three months can make.
Last November, Brunei DPMM celebrated a historic first Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League title triumph, pipping Tampines Rovers on the final day.
And a month later, their coach Steve Kean and attacking midfielder Azwan Ali were crowned Coach of the Year and Young Player of the Year, respectively.
But on the eve of the season-opener - DPMM take on Albirex Niigata in the Community Shield clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium tomorrow - there are big question marks over the Wasps' ability to retain their title.
The main reason for this are the new rules for foreign imports. Each team are allowed to register only three imports, down from five.
As a result, DPMM were forced to part with no-nonsense Bosnian defender Boris Raspudic and combative Irish midfielder Joe Gamble. They have retained Northern Irish defender Brian McLean, Portuguese winger Paulo Sergio and Brazilian striker Rafael Ramazotti, last season's Golden Boot winner with 21 goals.
Kean admitted that Raspudic and Gamble will be hard to replace, but he is confident his talented squad are ready to defend the title.
"It's tough because anybody could see that Boris was one of the best defenders in the S.League, while Joe is a coach's dream because he takes your game plan to the pitch," the Scot told The New Paper.
"But rules are rules. We've not made any changes, other than bringing in three very talented young players from our Under-19 squad into our team.
"As far as I'm concerned, we still have a very good team and we're the team to beat."
Sergio echoed his coach's belief.
"Our pre-season preparations have gone well and the whole team are ready to defend our title," said the former Sporting Lisbon youth player.
"I also think we can cope with (the departures of Raspudic and Gamble) because we have very good Bruneian players who are ready to come in."
Kean is aware that DPMM's rivals have all strengthened their squads in the off-season.
Tampines have signed former Liverpool and Arsenal winger Jermaine Pennant and a host of national players from the disbanded LionsXII.
Last season's under-performing uniformed sides - Home United and Warriors FC - have also assembled strong squads.
"Obviously, we know what Tampines have done, they've signed most of the LionsXII squad, and that's fantastic for them," said former Blackburn manager Kean.
"But we feel we have to build the club by promoting the young players from within.
"It's going to be much, much more competitive, but I'm confident we can put a title challenge together."
Kean believes that the key to his side's title defence will be how they perform at their Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium home, which he says can become DPMM's fortress.
"It's different when S.League teams play in Brunei," he said.
"When they come to our place, the atmosphere is hostile. There are 15,000 people backing us.
"Actually, I think they enjoy coming here. Maybe it motivates them a bit, but I'm sure it motivates us a lot more.
"And I think how we perform at home will be very important to our hopes of doing well this season."
- SAZALI ABDUL AZIZ
- Last season's finish: Champions
- TNP's prediction: 2nd
- Key players in: None
- Key players out: Boris Raspudic (FK Borac Banja Luca, Bosnia), Joe Gamble (Released)
- Man to watch: Paulo Sergio
While Rafael Ramazotti gets plaudits for his goals, it is Sergio who provides the ammunition. The Portuguese winger played only 20 league matches last year because of a hamstring injury, but showed his class when he did take to the pitch, and also chipped in with a respectable tally of 12 goals.
- Coach: Steve Kean
The S.League's Coach of the Year has gone a little way to repairing his reputation following a disastrous spell as manager of Premier League club Blackburn Rovers. He will have to summon all his experience if his side, shorn of two foreign stars, are to retain their league title from last season.
FIRST FIVE FIXTURES
- Tomorrow (7.30pm): Albirex Niigata v Brunei DPMM (Jalan Besar Stadium)
- Feb 20 (7.30pm): Geylang International v Brunei DPMM (Bedok Stadium)
- Feb 27 (8.15pm): Brunei DPMM v Warriors FC (Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium, Bandar Seri Begawan)
- March 4 (7.30pm): Hougang United v Brunei DPMM (Jalan Besar Stadium)
- March 11 (8.15pm): Brunei DPMM v Home United (Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium, Bandar Seri Begawan)
- Albirex Niigata v Brunei DPMM (7.30pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)
- Garena Young Lions v Balestier Khalsa (7.30pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)
- Home United v Warriors FC (7.30pm, Bishan Stadium)
- Tampines Rovers v Geylang International (7.30pm, Jurong West Stadium)