Stags want victory at any cost
Coach Akbar wants win - stylish or ugly - to send them top
TAMPINES ROVERS v HOUGANG UNITED
(Tonight, 7.30pm, Jurong West Stadium)
They may have been churning out stylish victories in recent times.
But as this Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League campaign reaches the business end, Tampines Rovers have no qualms about winning ugly as long as it takes them closer to the title.
Since Akbar Nawas replaced V Sundramoorthy at the helm of the Stags, they have been in dominant form with 10 wins from 12 games in all competitions, scoring 34 goals and conceding only 17.
They have had to grind it out in their past two matches, toiling to a 2-1 win over Geylang International before coming from behind to beat Warriors FC 3-2.
Another tricky test awaits them at Jurong West Stadium tonight in the form of Hougang United.
Aware that three points would be enough to send them to the top of the table for the first time this season, Akbar insists he does not mind how his charges get the job done, as long as they leapfrog leaders Albirex Niigata by the end of tonight.
"As I've said before, at this stage of the season, choosing between the three points and a beautiful display is a no-brainer," he told The New Paper.
"This is a chance for us to climb up and lead the table for once and it's definitely something the boys are aiming for.
"There have been areas that we haven't been that good in but, with the system we want to play, there will always be risks.
"We have to make sure that we don't get caught out in transition but, slowly, things are improving and we are getting there."
Tampines have had the upper hand over the Cheetahs this year with 4-1 and 6-4 victories sandwiching a 1-1 draw, but their coach insists that is no reason for them to get overconfident.
Akbar added: "Football is not like math where one plus one definitely equals two.
"Every game is different and what we've done before this season does not set a precedence.
"We know what Hougang's potent strike force can do and we will have to dig deep and focus on this game solely."
With no shortage of players with title-winning experience in the side, Tampines appear to be well placed to deal with any pressure that will arise during the title run-in.
Just for good measure, Akbar reveals he will do whatever he can to prevent his charges from looking too far ahead in their bid to win the Stags' first league title since 2013.
"Just imagine when you eat… It's much easier when you cut the food up into small pieces," he explained.
"Which is why, as much as possible, we want to just keep thinking about our next game and not get too caught up in everything else.
"I'll admit it's not easy for the boys especially because the closer we get to the finish, there will come a point when we start thinking about it (the title).
"For now, however, we'll just keep at what we've been doing."
Iqbal eyes Suzuki Cup spot
Having struggled for form earlier in this Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League season, Hougang United's Iqbal Hussain is enjoying a purple patch in the second half of the season.
And the 23-year-old hopes his form can convince national coach V Sundramoorthy to give him a call-up to the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup squad in November.
The skilful attacker has found his groove in the past month by netting three goals in his side's past four games, including a sublime effort in last week's 4-2 triumph over Home United.
His ability to carve apart opposition defences and create something out of nothing has not gone unnoticed by Sundram, who recently included him in his weekly national team training sessions.
A knee injury ended his hopes of playing at the 2014 Suzuki Cup, while he was a last-minute exclusion from the Under-23 squad for last year's South-east Asia Games.
The two setbacks have only served to spur him on in his bid to pull on the Lions' jersey.
"That's the only dream I have right now and I just want to continue to do well and prove I should be part of the squad," Iqbal told The New Paper yesterday.
"Honestly, being dropped last year (for the SEA Games) wasn't easy (for me to take), but every coach has his reasons and I respect that no matter how upset I might be.
"I had a lot of support from my coaches, friends and family and now I use that experience more as motivation than anything.
"I feel like I've been reborn since (The New Paper) League Cup and I just want to do my best for Hougang."
One person who recognises Iqbal's ability is K Balagumaran, his current coach at Hougang, who handed him his professional debut as a 17-year-old at Gombak United.
When asked just how much of an impact his protege could have for the Lions, Bala, whom Iqbal calls "a great coach and a great friend", said: "I've known Iqbal since he was 15 and he just wants to play football.
"Some people claim he's not easy to handle but, to me, he's very obedient.
"Sundram has been following him and I think he has a very bright future.
"I would really love to see him playing in the Suzuki Cup this year."
Iqbal, who finishes his National Service commitments next May, will get another golden opportunity to showcase his abilities tonight when the Cheetahs visit second-placed Tampines Rovers at Jurong West Stadium.
Although Hougang have not beaten the Stags in three meetings this year, Bala is confident they can get a positive result.
He added: "Our last win has lifted the spirits of the boys and they've started believing in themselves.
"Tampines are a very strong team, but this season has proved that any team, on their day, can beat any other team.
"Now we have a great chance to finish inside the top three with seven games to go, and I've told the players it's all in their hands.
"If they have the desire and focus, they can achieve it."