Albirex not as strong as last year: Kraljevic
Albirex Niigata may have picked up from where they left off by winning their third straight Community Shield, but the new-look team are not unstoppable.
That's the view of Balestier Khalsa coach Marko Kraljevic, who believes this year's team, who beat Tampines Rovers 2-1 last Saturday, are not as strong as last year's quadruple-winning side.
Besides losing a number of key players to other foreign clubs, Albirex have also been hit by age restriction.
With the exception of 38-year-old goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa, the Japanese side are an Under-23 team in the Singapore Premier League (SPL).
They have retained only two players - Nozawa and midfielder Hiroyoshi Kamata from last year.
Kraljevic told TNP: "This year's Albirex team are definitely not as strong as last year, where they were really the favourites.
"This team are new and a lot different because of the age group, so the players are younger and may be inexperienced.
"To me, they'll still be in the top three, but I don't think they will run ahead of the rest of the teams like in the last two years, where they were the clear leaders very early in the season."
Kraljevic believes Home United and Tampines have a shot at the SPL title.
But that also depends on the strength of Brunei DPMM, who are not subjected to age restrictions and are allowed to sign up to three foreign imports - one more than the senior local SPL clubs.
Home coach Aidil, whose side beat Albirex 2-0 last year, believes the title favourites are Albirex and Tampines.
But Aidil, who had watched Albirex in pre-season, added that this team may lack depth.
"I've watched many of their pre-season matches, and I feel that this season, Albirex will be based on 13 players," he said.
"The other players are young and still adapting, so if the key players like the goalkeeper and forwards are injured, the team might have some issues."
Meanwhile, Philippe Aw, coach of Hougang United, the other team to have beaten Albirex last season when they won 2-1, believes the White Swans will win their third consecutive league title.
He said: "They may field a younger team but I think their achievements in the past years have shown that no matter what team, they've got quality.
"Because of the attitude of the players, the commitment and hard work they put in. Even how much they're taking care of themselves on and off the field.
"So I still think Albirex will be champions." - SHARIFAH MUNIRAH