Stags aiming to charge down unbeaten White Swans
After ending Home United's unbeaten record, Tampines want to inflict a first loss on leaders Albirex
|TAMPINES ROVERS||ALBIREX NIIGATA|
With a third of the season gone, Albirex Niigata sit pretty atop the Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League, unbeaten in eight matches.
Tampines Rovers defender Daniel Bennett is determined to prove that "unbeaten" does not mean "unbeatable" when second-placed Stags host Albirex in a top-of-the-table clash at Jurong West Stadium on Sunday night.
Said national team stalwart Bennett: "It's a huge opportunity for us to close the gap (of four points) and we have to beat them for ourselves.
"But I also believe that if a team beat Albirex, others will also start to believe they can also beat them.
"I don't think they (Albirex) are that wonderful.
"Of course, you have to respect your opponents, but I think some (S.League clubs) respect them too much."
The 39-year-old and his teammates have reason to be bullish.
In their previous S.League match, they ended another proud unbeaten league record, when they beat third-placed Home United 3-2, with Bennett scoring what proved to be the winner.
Home, incidentally, are the only team who managed to take points off Albirex this season, when the two teams drew 2-2 last month.
"Home are a good team, but I never expected we would lose the game," said Bennett.
"We had every confidence we could take points from Home, and it's the same situation now, with Albirex."
There were plenty of fireworks in their first meeting in February, when the two sides faced each other in the season's curtain-raiser in front of over 15,000 fans at the National Stadium.
Albirex came from behind to win 2-1, but only after Tampines were controversially ordered to retake a successful penalty, which they then missed.
The Stags also saw Yasir Hanapi sent off, before Albirex scored twice.
Said Tampines coach Juergen Raab: "If the referee did not make such a decision (to order the retake), we would have led 2-0 and maybe we would have won the Community Shield and taken the three points.
"We showed in that match we could beat Albirex and, we can do that (on Sunday) if our players perform at the levels we know they are able to.
"But we also have to be wary of Albirex because they have some dangerous players.
"We must make sure not to give too much space to the No. 9 (striker Tsubasa Sano) and also to keep an eye on the No. 7 (winger Ryota Nakai) and No. 10 (playmaker Kento Nagasaki)."
Despite a rocky start to the season, Tampines are well in the title race after a recent resurgence, which has seen them win four games on the trot.
At the start of the season, some had predicted that the Stags would struggle to cope with the loss of players such as marquee signing Jermaine Pennant, club joint-top scorers Billy Mehmet and Jordan Webb, and Singapore internationals Izzdin Shafiq and Hafiz Abu Sujad.
Having also had to juggle regional AFC Cup commitments, the team lost six of their first nine games in all competitions, and this included two defeats in the S.League.
But, having failed to progress into the AFC Cup knock-out rounds, the Stags have managed to restore their focus on the S.League and the improvement in results domestically has been telling.
Said Raab: "It is not easy to replace the players (who left), especially in attack.
"But our performances have shown how hard the team have worked.
"And, on Sunday against Albirex, we want to continue the development we have shown in the last few matches."
Albirex coach says they are not yet in top gear
Albirex Niigata coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga can hardly have any complaints with his debut season in Singapore so far.
After the first of three rounds of the Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League, the White Swans have the most points from eight matches (16), are the highest scorers (21 goals) and boast the best defensive record (just five conceded).
But, ahead of Albirex's top-of-the-table clash with Tampines Rovers on Sunday, the former Shimizu S-Pulse coach still believes his team have been far from their best.
"We don't think much of the (unbeaten) record," the 48-year-old told The New Paper after a training session yesterday.
"Of course, the results give us confidence, but we still have some weaknesses we have to work on.
"We are not fixated on the results. We want to play better and, when we do that, the results will come naturally."
Under the guidance of Naoki Naruo last season, Albirex swept every piece of silverware on offer, bagging the Great Eastern Community Shield, The New Paper League Cup, the RHB Singapore Cup, and the S.League title.
Naruo has since returned to Japan to lead the parent club's Under-18 team in Niigata.
Yoshinaga has urged his charges to forget their impressive record in the first round of matches, if they want another trophy-laden season.
We are not fixated on the results. We want to play better and, when we do that, the results will come naturally.Albirex Niigata coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga
He even hinted he may make changes to the team's thus-far effective style of play, in order to see an improvement.
"We are trying out a few new things, and, hopefully, they will work out on Sunday," he said.
"The start of the second round presents a good chance for us to press the reset button."
Tampines will be out to avenge a 2-1 defeat in the first fixture between the two teams in February, when they had a penalty goal controversially disallowed, and then had a player sent off, before Albirex came from behind to win the match.
And Yoshinaga is wary of the threat the Stags present.
"I am not surprised they have quietly accumulated points and are now second in the table," he said.
"My recent image of Tampines is that they are very tight defensively - if you look at their defensive record, they have conceded only six goals, only one fewer than us.
"Also, when they get the ball, they are very quick on the counter attack."
- Warriors FC v Balestier Khalsa (7.30pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)
- Geylang International v Hougang United (7.30pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)
- Tampines Rovers v Albirex Niigata (7.30pm, Jurong West Stadium)
- Young Lions v Home United (7.30pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)