Baihakki Khaizan cautious as he closes in on his first SPL title
But veteran defender plays down the prospect as league reaches final straight
In his 18 years as a professional footballer, Baihakki Khaizan has won the Malaysian Super League with the now-defunct LionsXII and played an integral part in three of Singapore's four victorious AFF (Asean Football Federation) Suzuki Cup campaigns.
A Singapore Premier League (SPL) winner's medal has remained elusive for the 36-year-old defender, who has also played for Geylang United, Young Lions and Warriors FC.
But that could change soon with his current club, SPL leaders Tampines Rovers, just two wins away from their first league title since 2013.
The Stags, who have a one-point lead over Albirex Niigata, face third-placed Lion City Sailors at Bishan Stadium tonight, but Baihakki's experience was telling as he called for calm and focus.
"Winning the SPL title will be sweet, a fantastic feeling," the veteran centre-back told The New Paper.
"It is what all local footballers dream of achieving growing up. But I don't want to put unnecessary pressure on myself.
"Last week, we knew we had three must-win games and we are taking it one game at a time. We need to stay calm, concentrate on each game as it comes and not get carried away."
Baihakki acknowledged that he signed for the Stags in June after leaving Thai League 1 team PT Prachuap as he felt Gavin Lee's side "offered the best possibility" to be champions.
And, in Baihakki, Tampines have benefited from a player who has plied his trade in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, while amassing 137 caps for Singapore.
The strapping 1.9m centre-back's experience will be all the more crucial tonight, as they face the free-scoring Sailors, whose coach Aurelio Vidmar has insisted that the Stags are weighed down by the title race.
He said: "This is a game we have to win to give us any sort of chance... (but) we are not feeling any pressure, the pressure is all on them because we have been chasing all season.
"We have been playing some great football, the team's morale has been extremely high and we are looking forward to this game. So bring it on."
Vidmar's bullishness stems partly from his side plundering 37 goals in 10 games since the SPL restart on Oct 17, but Tampines coach Lee is unfazed.
"When people look at Sailors' goal (tally), it's a big number," said Lee, whose side have the league's best defensive record, but have managed only three clean sheets in their nine games since the restart.
"But, at the same time, I don't think all the attention should be on them. Yes, we recognise they are a good side, they can score goals, but let's not forget that Tampines are an equally dominant side in possession as well."
Vidmar kept his cards close to his chest when asked about the availability of the SPL's leading marksman Stipe Plazibat, only saying the 14-goal Croat will be assessed again today.
Plazibat has made only a cameo against Geylang International since suffering a hamstring injury last month, but Lee wasn't too concerned about his return, instead choosing to focus on his own talisman Jordan Webb, who is back from a two-game suspension.
The Canadian winger has contributed seven goals and four assists this season.
Said Lee: "He has been fantastic for us this season and no time better than now to be back available for selection."
SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE
Albirex Niigata v Tanjong Pagar United
Lion City Sailors v Tampines Rovers
Hougang United v Balestier Khalsa
Young Lions v Geylang Int'l
Hougang United v Albirex Niigata
Lion City Sailors v Balestier Khalsa
Tampines Rovers v Geylang Int'l
Tanjong Pagar United v Young Lions
(Live on Singtel Ch 111/112/113, StarHub Ch 201/202/204 & 1 Play Sports’ Facebook page)