Much at stake, but Albirex, Tampines not looking too far ahead
|ALBIREX NIIGATA||TAMPINES ROVERS|
With just three games left in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) season, both Tampines Rovers and Albirex Niigata are focused only on Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash, and are remotely interested in discussing title talk.
Gavin Lee’s charges are second in the SPL standings, two points behind Keiji Shigetomi’s side, and both coaches, who are not looking beyond the three points, believe the showdown offers the prospects of a tantalising encounter.
“We are taking it one game at a time. I’m expecting an exciting game, both are good sides and have a lot to play for,” Lee told The New Paper.
“We are very offensive team and we are looking to impose ourselves on them.”
Added Shigetomi: “We are not thinking of the title yet, just three points for this game.
“I hope it will be an exciting game for fans as both teams want to win... Tampines have players who can score goals, so we have to defend properly first, then our attacking players can do their work.
“But with so many games played this month, fitness will be a key issue for the game.”
While both teams can seize the initiative in the title race with the win on Sunday, the pressure on the chasers is greater as they face third-placed Lion City Sailors and fourth-placed Geylang International, who held them to a 1-1 draw earlier this month, in their remaining fixtures.
However, Lee dismisses the notion of pressure affecting his side ahead of their last three matches.
“It is a football game. We know the mathematical (permutations) and all that, but we just focus on the game. We just focus on what we enjoy, on what we love,” the 30-year-old said.
“Pressure is coming from outside, we just go out there enjoy ourselves and do our best, and hopefully get a result.”
But it was all so different just a month ago.
Then, Tampines handed Albirex their first loss of the season and leapfrogged the Japanese side at the summit of the SPL, with nine games left in a truncated season.
However, the tables turned after the Stags endured a slump in form, garnering three wins and three draws, while the White Swans racked up five wins on the trot, including a 3-2 victory over title rivals Lion City Sailors.
While the momentum is pushing Albirex towards their fourth league title in five years, Lee rubbished away such indicators, insisting it is about which side turn up at the Jurong East Stadium on Sunday.
“We are just thinking about the task at hand and that, on the day, the better team win,” Lee told The New Paper.
“Yes, there are many factors that go into it (being the better team), like Albirex could be in a more positive brain state as their run of wins could help with that.
“But they have stuck with a lot of the same players and there could be a chance of accumulated fatigue... they could be at a different physical state.
“So when you talk about form and momentum, these are things that you cannot quantify, there are all very subjective opinions.”
Shigetomi also shared a similar sentiment, saying: “The wins have given us confidence, but Tampines will also want to win badly. So past form has no bearing on this game.”
However, the absence of their joint top scorer Jordan Webb, who is suspended, will be felt by the Stags. The Canadian winger has contributed one third of Tampines’ 21 goals this season in addition to his four assists.
“It’s a shame, but it is what it is. We don’t sit here brooding over it. We look ahead and find different solutions,” Lee said.
Shigetomi pointed out that Tampines will still provide stiff opposition as they have other dangerous players, including seven-goal Boris Kopitovic, Kyoga Nakamura and Zehrudin Mehmedovic, while adding that “many of their local players are national team players too”.
Just last Sunday, Albirex faced a similar situation, taking on title rivals Sailors who were missing SPL’s leading marksman Stipe Plazibat.
They prevailed in that clash, opening a six-point gap over the Bishan outfit, but Shigetomi was quick to refute any knock-on effects from that victory.
“Tampines are a different team from Lion City Sailors,” the 41-year-old Japanese said.
“They have players who can score goals, so we have to defend properly first, then our attacking players can do their work.”