Four reasons for Home United's recovery
Four reasons why the Protectors are the form team in the S.League after a stuttering start
- YOUNG LIONS v WARRIORS FC
(Today, 7.30pm, Jalan Besar Stadium)
- BALESTIER KHALSA v GEYLANG
(Saturday, 7.30pm, Toa Payoh Stadium)
- BRUNEI DPMM v HOUGANG
(Saturday, 8.15pm, Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium, Bandar Seri Begawan)
- TAMPINES ROVERS v HOME UNITED
(Tomorrow, 7.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz)
Before the season started, they were touted as darkhorses for the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League title.
The signing of a trio of LionsXII players - powerful striker Khairul Nizam, wing ace Faris Ramli and set-piece specialist Zulfahmi Arifin - plus the two striker sons of local football legend Fandi Ahmad - Irfan and Ikhsan - suggested that Home United had enough firepower to mix it with the best in the S.League.
The Protectors also retained the services of Danish striker Ken Ilso, who was nominated for the Player of the Year award in his debut S.League campaign last year.
The 29-year-old would have been a shoo-in winner if not for the spate of injuries that interrupted chunks of his season.
Four games into the new season, all the talk of Home ending their 13-year wait for the league title - they were champions in 1999 and 2003 - went out of the window.
Without a win in their first four games, the heat was on coach Philippe Aw and his players.
But they quickly regrouped and lost just once in the next six matches, picking up 13 points from 18 on offer.
They are in sixth place on 15 points, level with defending champions Brunei DPMM FC (fourth) and Geylang International (fifth) but with a slightly inferior goal difference of +1.
A win over title contenders Tampines Rovers tomorrow, along with a couple of other favourable results elsewhere, could see them move as high up as third by the end of the week.
Here are four factors for Home's reversal of fortunes:
1 KEY PLAYERS FIT AGAIN
Home's key players weren't in the best of shape at the beginning of the season.
Faris and South Korean midfield dynamo Song Ui Yong were sidelined with injury just three matches into the season.
Later, first-choice centre back Abdil Qaiyyim and playmaker Azhar Sairudin (right) suffered knocks which ruled them out for a couple of games.
Said Aw: "You mentioned Azhar, Abdil (and Song)... They were here last season.
"They know how we want to play, what's needed from our players.
"This year, we have a young team, so these players are considered the seniors. So when they were gone, it made a difference."
2 NEW FACES SETTLING IN
Aw believes it is no surprise the team have begun clicking into gear with about a third of the season gone.
"With all the new faces, it was always going to take time for them to gel," he said.
"If you look at (Premier League champions) Leicester City, they talk about being like a family off the field, that's why they battle for each other on it.
"This (camaraderie) does not happen overnight. It may take two or three seasons, even.
"That's why we tried our best not to change the team from last season too much."
Added Azhar: "It definitely took us a while for us to really gel as a team.
"Coach (Aw) had to reshuffle a few players in a few positions... But now he has found our strongest team."
3 CONVERTING THEIR CHANCES
In their first four matches, Home averaged a goal a game. In their last six, they doubled that figure.
According to Aw, this is the result of his team being more ruthless in front of goal.
"We are finishing off our chances better, compared to early in the season," he said. "We need bodies in the box... we didn't have that then, we have that now.
"Maybe that goes back again to the boys being more (adept) at how we want to play."
The coach still isn't fully satisfied yet, though.
"One thing that hasn't changed is us conceding easy goals," he said.
"Hopefully, we will change that soon too."
4 MORALE ON A HIGH
When the chips were down, the players' morale also took a dip.
The turning point came in consecutive fixtures against the Garena Young Lions and Balestier Khalsa, the bottom two sides.
Six points from those matches restored the confidence in the Protectors, and even a sound 3-0 defeat by table-toppers Albirex Niigata - which Azhar, Abdil and Faris missed through injury - could not dent their morale.
They bounced back with a 2-2 draw with Geylang International before posting another two wins, against uniformed rivals Warriors FC and high-flying Hougang United.
Last weekend, Home had 11 players in the Singapore Selection squad that won the Sultan of Selangor's Cup in Shah Alam, despite having a man sent off.
Said Azhar: "Definitely, the morale now is much better.
"Plus, most of us went up for the Sultan of Selangor's Cup, and I think it has given us a huge boost.
"We need a few good results this month, so we can move into the top three and then build from there.
"I'm confident we can do it."
Fatigue forces Sundram to make changes
ON A ROLL: Sundram's Tampines, seen here earlier, are on a high after their AFC Cup win over Selangor on Tuesday. PHOTO: TNP FILE
On Tuesday, Tampines Rovers became the first S.League club since 2012 to qualify for the knockout stages of the AFC Cup, when they beat Malaysia's Selangor FA 1-0 at the National Stadium.
It also marked the start of a testing seven days for the Stags.
V Sundramoorthy's side will face in-form Home United tomorrow at the Jalan Besar Stadium, and then Warriors FC at the Choa Chu Kang Stadium on Tuesday.
The latter match is a rescheduled fixture after the two sides' earlier meeting on Feb 19 was called off because of unplayable conditions caused by thunderstorms.
With just two days' rest since the Selangor win, and only another three before the Warriors game, Sundram admitted he is worried about fatigue creeping into his players.
"We will try to bring in some fresh legs," said the man known as The Dazzler during his playing days.
"At the same time, we need the result to catch (league leaders) Albirex Niigata. It's a difficult situation.
"But I believe in all my players, and I trust whoever I put in will do their best. Fatigue is the main concern."
It's not the first time this season Tampines have had to cope with a hectic schedule.
They played eight games in 32 days - an average of three days' rest between matches - from April 3 to May 4.
Said Sundram: "Playing a game every three days is not easy.
"So the six days from the Hougang game (on May 4) to the Selangor game was a luxury for us.
"You could see the difference in performance when the team were well-rested, both physically and mentally."
The 50-year-old coach added that he expects a fierce battle with a Home United team that have lost just once in six matches - a 3-0 reversal to Albirex on April 8.
"Home have had back-to-back wins, and are on a high," said Sundram.
"I've been watching them and I think their defeat by Albirex was just an off-day.
"They have good players, they're playing good football. So it'll be a tough game for sure."
- SAZALI ABDUL AZIZ
We will try to bring in some fresh legs (against Home United)... I believe in all my players, and I trust whoever I put in will do their best.
- Tampines coach V Sundramoorthy