FAVOURITES SEEK EARLY BOOST
TAMPINES ROVERS v HOME UNITED
(Tonight, 7.30pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)
They are desperate to draw first blood.
Never mind lifting the Great Eastern Charity Shield at the end of tonight's S.League curtain-raiser at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
For Tampines Rovers and Home United, what's more crucial is the three points on offer.
For the first time, the Charity Shield match will also count as a league fixture - which effectively renders tonight's game as an "early title clash" between the two hot favourites.
"It's important we get off to a good start and gain early ground on our title rivals Tampines," said Home coach Lee Lim Saeng.
"In such a competitive league, in which every team have improved, any point gained is important."
The South Korean coach has already thrown down the gauntlet to the defending champions.
Home have not won the S.League since 2003. Lee, who joined the Protectors in 2010 and has won the Singapore Cup twice, is under pressure to deliver the league championship this year.
To that end, he has retained South Korean marquee signing and 2013 Player of the Year, Lee Kwan Woo, for another season, and also added Lions forward Qiu Li to their front-line.
Lee knows the Stags are the biggest obstacle in Home's way.
"We need to respect every team (but) Tampines remain favourites," said Lee, last season's Coach of the Year.
"They are the biggest team in the league. They have already won three titles in a row."
His counterpart, Salim Moin, who joined Tampines after achieving an impressive fifth-placed finish with Woodlands last year, is singing a slightly different tune.
He expects more than just a two-horse race this season.
"We are not only looking at Home; many other teams will give us a tough time this year," Salim said.
"Albirex and Tanjong Pagar remain strong, and Geylang looked good when they beat us 1-0 in pre-season."
Stags playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman, though, is wary of Home's challenge.
"They are desperate to win the league this year and that's what makes them dangerous," he warned.
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"They also have the best team on paper, next to us.
"I think Qiu Li is a good signing for them. If he gets 15 goals, Home will be hard to stop this year."
Tampines, who have won the past three Charity Shields, have also beefed up their attack by paying top dollar for marquee striker Miljan Mrdakovic.
Although he scored in Tampines' 2-1 defeat by South China in the AFC Champions League qualifier earlier this month, the 31-year-old Serb failed to impress alongside evergreen target man Aleksandar Duric.
Salim, however, insists his star man has settled into the squad since then.
"Miljan has been blending in well. He's been given some personal coaching and I've also spoken to him about the expectations.
"He knows what the team, the fans and the media are expecting of him."