Tampines out to salvage season
Peppered with stars, Tampines have flattered to deceive but have a final chance to deliver a trophy
ALBIREX NIIGATA v TAMPINES ROVERS
(Tonight, 7.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz )
It has been an eventful year for Tampines Rovers, to say the least.
While it has not exactly panned out the way they would have hoped for, the local football giants have a wonderful opportunity to end the season on a high when they play Albirex Niigata in tonight's RHB Singapore Cup final at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Much was expected from the team following the assembly of a star-studded squad, headlined by former Arsenal and Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant, along with 15 past and present Singapore internationals, including goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud, defender Fahrudin Mustafic and striker Fazrul Nawaz.
But, midway through the season, they were forced into a managerial change when V Sundramoorthy took over the Singapore vacancy and was replaced by Akbar Nawas.
Then recently, the club hogged the headlines after news broke that a readjustment of their finances for next season would see top players' salaries restricted to just $2,500 a month, possibly resulting in a mass exodus of their big names.
Given all that has happened, the fact that they still have a chance to win silverware is something the Stags will not be taking lightly.
"This is probably the last time we're all together as a team so we're really pumped up," said Akbar yesterday.
"From playing Albirex a few times this season already, both teams know how each other will shape up and, for us, it's a good stage to give a good account of ourselves.
"I believe the hungrier of the two teams will nick it."
Amid all the drama, little attention has been paid to the fact that Akbar, in his debut season as a senior coach, has performed admirably since taking over the reins.
In his 22 games at the helm before tonight's final, he has guided the Stags to 15 wins, with the team playing a brand of adventurous and entertaining football as they racked up 50 goals, en route to finishing second in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League, just one point behind Albirex.
Akbar, who is likely to continue to pull the strings at Tampines next season, is grateful for the experience.
"This six months of experience I've gained, with no disrespect to the other teams, would have taken me five years to achieve at any other club," he said, as he looks to stop the Japanese club from an unprecedented sweep of all trophies.
After collecting the Community Shield in the season's curtain-raiser, the league champions went on to win The New Paper League Cup.
"Taking over halfway through the season with this bunch of international stars like Jermaine has helped me learn so much," said Akbar.
"We tried to play the style we wanted to play and we scored 30 goals in 12 league games… I think that says something.
"I don't think I would see my spell as being a success purely based on whether we win the Singapore Cup.
"Even for Tampines, I think it's been a good season, but winning the cup would be icing on the cake."
One man with plenty of experience winning silverware is goalkeeper Izwan, who was in the LionsXII side that won the Malaysia Super League (2013) and FA Cup (2015). He was also the Singapore No. 1 when the Lions won the AFF Suzuki Cup in 2012.
Asked if the hunger to win ever diminishes, Izwan replied, with a cheeky grin: "It never gets boring winning… Even players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi want to win as many trophies as they can.
"Albirex are a good team and I think it's going to be a good, exciting game between two teams that like to play football, so let's see who turns up."
"This six months of experience I’ve gained, with no disrespect to the other teams, would have taken me five years to achieve at any other club."
- Tampines coach Akbar Nawas.
Chastened Albirex vow to bounce back
There is so much up for grabs for Albirex Niigata when they take on Tampines Rovers in the RHB Singapore Cup final at the Jalan Besar Stadium tonight.
Revenge is on the cards after a recent drubbing at the hands of Tampines, a second RHB Singapore Cup final win in the club's 13-year existence is 90 minutes away and, perhaps most importantly, they have history within their grasp.
Victory over Tampines will see Albirex become the first club in the history of Singapore football to complete the clean sweep of the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League, Singapore Cup, The New Paper League Cup and Community Shield.
Given their dominance in 2016, the White Swans will enter the Cup final as favourites against a Tampines side who finished second to them in the league.
"Being the last game of the season, it should serve as a representation of all that we have achieved this year." - Albirex coach Naoki Naruo
Following what has already been a successful first year back in Singapore after his initial spell in charge in 2009, Albirex coach Naoki Naruo has warned his charges against complacency as the Japanese club look to end the season on a high.
"Of course, we have no shortage of motivation to win," Naruo said, at yesterday's pre-final press conference, while seated next to opposite number Akbar Nawas.
"Obviously, there is (a fourth trophy) up for grabs. But, being the last game of the season, it should serve as a representation of all that we have achieved this year."
In four meetings in 2016, both sides have won two games each and their most recent meeting, on Wednesday, saw Tampines claim a resounding 5-1 victory on the final day of the S.League campaign.
While the match was of little consequence, the White Swans did field a team consisting of regular first-team players like centre back Kento Fujihara, playmaker Kento Nagasaki and dynamic midfielder Masaya Jitozono.
Considering they have lost both their games since sealing the league title - the other loss was a 3-1 defeat by Home United - the White Swans may have taken their foot off the pedal at the wrong time.
"That game (the 5-1 loss to Tampines) was a pretty damaging loss, but there's nothing we can do but accept the result," admitted Naruo.
"We've since returned to training and addressed the areas that need to be addressed.
"I am confident we can improve on our previous performance and we will do our best to beat Tampines."
While the stakes are high, there has been little tension between the two camps during the build-up to the Cup final and it is clear both parties hold each other in high regard.
Tampines coach Akbar dismissed suggestions they were under more pressure because they are flying the flag for local clubs, instead praising Albirex for their exciting football.
Echoing those sentiments, Stags goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud hailed Albirex's quality and claimed they should be regarded as a local club after 13 years in the S.League.
While there will be much attacking talent on display, both sides could well kick off with a conservative approach, especially if Naruo's premonition is correct.
"I think the first goal will decide the game," he said. "Whichever team score first... that will be very important."
- GABRIEL TAN