Only time before Tampines hit top gear
Tampines have yet to fire on all cylinders, but pundits say it is only a matter of time
GEYLANG INTERNATIONAL v TAMPINES ROVERS
(Tonight, 7.30pm, Bedok Stadium)
They have assembled a squad that are the envy of every team in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League.
Boosted by the signing of former Liverpool and Arsenal winger Jermaine Pennant, and the arrival of eight ex-LionsXII players, title-favourites Tampines Rovers were expected to cruise to the top of the nine-team standings.
But they have not exactly set the league alight, despite the efforts of 2013 Malaysian Super League-winning coach V Sundramoorthy.
The Stags are fourth in a very tight table on 14 points, just three behind league-leaders Albirex Niigata, although they have a game in hand, ahead of tonight's tricky tie against Geylang International at the Bedok Stadium.
But observers believe that once the Stags put what are essentially teething issues behind them, there are few who can stand in their way.
"I remember looking at the squad list at the start of the year and thinking that, on paper, they are really strong and they would walk through the S.League. But it hasn't turned out that way, has it?" said former Warriors FC midfielder Rhysh Roshan Rai, now a FOX Sports pundit.
"Sundram has his style of football that is based on defensive stability before going out to attack but, once he sorts out a specific style of play that can get the best out of the star attacking players they have, they will certainly be a force," he added, pointing to the likes of Pennant, Jordan Webb, Billy Mehmet and Shahdan Sulaiman.
"You've got to give players freedom to express themselves."
Former Tampines stalwart Aleksandar Duric believes that there are other factors at play.
"Sundram is giving every player a chance to play now and, maybe after seeing how the team are playing, he will decide on his best 11 and play that team more consistently," said Duric.
"They are now focused on qualifying for the knockout stages of the AFC Cup, which I believe is important for them and also for Singapore football."
Tampines are second on seven points in a four-team Group E of the second-tier regional tournament, one behind Philippine side Ceres La Salle, and level on points with Malaysian giants Selangor.
Bangladesh's Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi are bottom with no points.
With just two matches left to play before the quarter-final stage of the tourney, the Stags are hoping to be the first Singaporean side to win the AFC Cup.
Both Home United and Geylang reached the semi-finals in 2004 - the country's best showing - but, in recent years, every single Singapore side have been knocked out during the group stages of the AFC Cup.
"It is still early in the season, and I expect Tampines to be at the top sooner than later, even though the league is a tougher competition this year," added Duric.
Rai agrees that the level of the league is higher this season, pointing to leaders Albirex and second-placed Hougang United as teams who have been playing more as a team than Tampines.
"The standard of the S.League this year is good. Look at the likes of Albirex and Hougang, they played as a team and they've got great scorers in Atsushi Kawata and Stipe Plazibat, too," said the 30-year-old.
"Every time any team face a top side like Tampines, you expect them to sit back in defence and close up. It isn't a problem unique to Tampines, they just have to figure out how to break teams down, and they have the players to do it."
Duric feels that the S.League has yet to see the best of Pennant - the man who is tasked with the job of unpicking tight defences.
"We've seen two faces of Pennant so far - if he gets the ball, we can see what he can do with it. But, when the ball doesn't go to him, he can be very quiet," said the 45-year-old.
"Pennant needs time to adapt to the weather and humidity here, as well as the style of play. But he has already shown in some games that he is a player to watch."
Duric and Rai are united in their views that Sundram's squad are too good not to win the title.
"It's a new-look team (only five were retained from the 2015 squad) and they are still gelling," said Duric.
"But there are enough big names in the squad for them to top the table easily, even though the league is stronger than it has been in the last few years."
It is still early in the season, and I expect Tampines to be at the top sooner than later, even though the league is a tougher competition this year.
— Former Tampines striker Aleksandar Duric