Tampines boosted by return of key players
Timely boost for Tampines as they welcome back seven national players for S.League title tilt
TAMPINES ROVERS v GEYLANG INTERNATIONAL
(Tonight, 7.30pm, Jurong West Stadium)
They were chortling, cackling and teasing one another.
You would not have guessed from the relaxed mood of the Tampines Rovers players before training on Tuesday evening that it is "squeaky-bum time" in the race for the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League title, as the season enters its final round of eight games.
The Stags are four points behind league leaders Albirex Niigata, and they will begin one final push to catch up with the Japanese side, starting with the game against Geylang International at Jurong West Stadium tonight.
One key factor behind the feel-good atmosphere at Tampines is the return of seven key players, who were away on international duty with the Singapore team for most of the last three weeks.
Despite the players' absence, the team surpassed expectations by reaching the semi-final of the TNP League Cup, even though some Prime League (Under-21 reserve team) members had to fill in for the regulars.
The team's English striker Billy Mehmet, said: "Yeah, it's really positive now and it's good to have all the national team boys back.
"To be fair to the young boys who played in the League Cup, they did very well.
"But it's good to have the quality that the national players bring to the team again."
Wide player Hafiz Abu Sujad, one of the seven Lions who were away, admitted that the national team's four defeats - three by Japanese sides and one by regional minnows Cambodia - were not ideal, but insisted the losses do not hang over the players' heads.
Said the 25-year-old: "Results-wise, it was not so good for the national team. But most of us can take away some good things from the trip, specifically from games against the Japanese teams.
"Now, everyone's happy to be back. We are chasing Albirex, and our only focus is to make sure we don't drop points."
Tampines coach Akbar Nawas, who welcomed his national players back to training on Monday, said their return is a timely boost.
"The mood is good here because they want to prove themselves by re-focusing on putting on good performances," said the rookie S.League coach.
"My only target for the team is the next game, whether it is the Singapore Cup, the S.League or the AFC Cup.
"I want to create a mentality within the team where they focus on doing their best and going as hard as they can, by taking it one game at a time.
"As far as the race goes, we don't want to think about Albirex dropping points because we might lose focus.
"After all, if we don't do the job ourselves, there's no point."
He expects a tough test against League Cup Plate winners Geylang tonight.
"Geylang will always be tough opponents because they are a quality side. Don't forget they also had seven national players in the recent squad," said Akbar.
"Now they have a point of reference up front in (mid-season Filipino signing) Mark Hartmann, who also has an eye for goal.
"So we have to give them due respect."
Mehmet, however, believes all Tampines have to do is to focus on their own strengths.
"It's going to be a big game against Geylang," said the former St Mirren and Perth Glory player.
"We want to close the gap between Albirex, and having a full squad gives us a boost and added confidence.
"We just have to play how we did before the League Cup, where we won six games in a row in the S.League and Singapore Cup, and I'm sure we'll get the results we need."
- Home United v Warriors FC (7.30pm, Bishan Stadium)
- Tampines Rovers v Geylang International (7.30pm, Jurong West Stadium)
- Garena Young Lions v Balestier Khalsa (7.45pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)
- Brunei DPMM v Albirex Niigata (8.15pm, Bandar Seri Begawan)
As far as the race goes, we don't want to think about Albirex dropping points because we might lose focus. After all, if we don't do the job ourselves, there's no point.
— Stags coach Akbar Nawas (above)
We want to close the gap between Albirex, and having a full squad gives us a boost and added confidence.
— Stags striker Billy Mehmet (above)
Geylang eye top-three finish
Geylang International coach Hasrin Jailani wants his side to build on their momentum.
Last Saturday, the Eagles beat Hougang United 2-1 to win The New Paper League Cup Plate final.
Now, he is targeting a top-three finish in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League campaign.
They kick off the final stretch of their season with a clash against second-placed Tampines Rovers at the Jurong West Stadium tonight.
Hasrin believes that his side, who are sixth in the table and trail the Stags by 13 points, are ready to take on the powerhouses.
He told The New Paper: "The morale of the team has been good and they are really looking forward to the last eight games of the league.
"I feel that third place in the league is still achievable and the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-placed teams have an equal chance at it.
"We want to do the best that we can and, in order to do that, we have to finish strong."
At the moment, Brunei DPMM are third in the table, ahead of Home United and Hougang United only on goal difference. Geylang are one point behind the pack.
The return of former LionsXII forward Shahfiq Ghani, who made his debut for the Eagles in the TNP League Cup Plate final last Saturday, is a welcome boost.
The 24-year-old had missed six months of action after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during pre-season training.
Hasrin was impressed with Shahfiq's performance, despite him playing only the last 10 minutes of last Saturday's match.
"I was surprised when he was able to make tackles in the game, which will be a huge boost to his confidence," said Hasrin.
"If he is able to show in training that he is ready, he will definitely be part of the team.
"I actually wanted to give him more playing time but, given his injury and the situation in the game, I could not.
"He has been training hard, but he is still not match-fit yet and, when he is fit, he can be a key player for the team."
TNP FILE PHOTO
Shahfiq (above), though, is raring to go.
If he has it his way, he wants to even start against the Stags tonight.
"Of course I can't wait to step onto the field but, at the same time, I still need to take care of my leg," he said.
"Coach (Hasrin) told me that we will need to slowly increase my playing time before I am fit enough to play a full game again.
"It's very hard for me to get a spot in the first 11, but my injury will not stop me from working hard to get it."