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."
Pennant, Nagasaki hold the key
HEAD TO HEAD: Tampines Rovers’ Jermaine Pennant (above) has been handed the chief creator’s role, and he is set to find Albirex’s Kento Nagasaki (bottom) in his way tomorrow.
One is a household name, having played for the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool.
The other has been quietly excelling over the last four years in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League.
Tomorrow night, Tampines Rovers star Jermaine Pennant and Albirex Niigata midfielder Kento Nagasaki could well decide who wins the mammoth tie between them.
Former England Under-21 man Pennant has shown he still has the touches and, even at 33, his pace continues to trouble defenders.
Since Akbar Nawas took over the reins of Tampines from V Sundramoorthy (who is now national coach) earlier this month, though, Pennant has flourished.
In three matches, he has scored twice and created four other goals.
Akbar redeployed Tampines' star man as chief creator, just behind the team's two strikers Billy Mehmet and Fazrul Nawaz.
Pennant has thrived on his freedom going forward, and his dead-ball deliveries have been top class.
He will be hoping to dictate play in the middle of the park for Tampines, but is set to find Nagasaki in his way.
Nagasaki has improved by leaps and bounds since signing his first professional contract with Albirex in 2013.
Previously an orthodox No. 10 - the same role Pennant now revels in - the 26-year-old has reinvented himself as a deep-lying midfielder in the current Albirex system.
Nagasaki has proven an effective shield for his team's defence, and has excelled in using his range of passing to spread play.
EYE FOR GOALS
The Andres Iniesta fan is not just a pass master; but he has an eye for goal as well.
He has found the net 17 times over the past four seasons, including twice in the White Swans' last match, a 5-2 win over Home United.
With a history of scoring in big games - last year, he struck the winning goals in two cup finals as Albirex won the TNP League Cup and RHB Singapore Cup double - Nagasaki could well fire his side to glory again.
- SAZALI ABDUL AZIZ