Tampines wonderwall must keep out Albirex's pocket rocket
Japanese side's new forward Morinaga, who is just 1.53m tall, pits his speed and skills against Bennett and Co in tonight's SPL opener
|ALBIREX NIIGATA||TAMPINES ROVERS|
The Singapore Premier League kicks off at the National Stadium today with quadruple champions Albirex Niigata taking on last season's runners-up Tampines Rovers.
Albirex, despite retaining only two players from last year's all-conquering squad and being almost entirely an Under-23 team this season, have vowed to win everything on offer again.
But Tampines, who finished second behind foreign clubs for the last three seasons, are certainly not keen to play bridesmaids for the fourth year running. A good result tonight will be a strong statement of intent.
Here are the key battles that could define this evening's tantalising encounter:
Taku Morinaga (Albirex) v Daniel Bennett (Tampines)
The Tampines Rovers defence, marshalled by the evergreen Daniel Bennett, 40, will be tested by Albirex newcomers like Taku Morinaga who, at 22, is nearly half Bennett's age.
Morinaga, the Singapore Premier League's smallest player at just 1.53m, netted seven goals in eight pre-season friendlies and has been tipped to shine by Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga.
Such is his potential that Morinaga, nicknamed the Little Giant, has been set a target of 20 goals by Albirex chairman Daisuke Korenaga.
But not for nothing did Bennett earn a two-year contract extension this year when players younger than him had already hung up their boots.
Last year, Tampines conceded only 20 goals in 24 league matches - the second best defensive record after Albirex.
Expect the Tampines wonderwall to pit their experience against the exuberance of Morinaga and Co tonight.
Yosuke Nozawa (Albirex) v Khairul Amri (Tampines)
Albirex goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa is one of only two players retained from last year's quadruple-winning squad. The 38-year-old, who kept a league-high 12 clean sheets last season and is the only player in this year's squad above the age of 23, is a key reason for the Japanese side's dominance.
Whether Nozawa can replicate his form with new and younger colleagues this season remains to be seen. Tampines, with their wealth of attackers up front, will provide a stern test tonight.
Stags striker Khairul Amri, who scored two goals in their last three competitive matches in the AFC Cup, will certainly be keen to add to his tally.
Kazuaki Yoshinaga (Albirex) v Juergen Raab (Tampines)
Last year, in his first season in charge, Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga led the White Swans to a successful title defence on all four fronts and was deservedly named the Coach of the Year.
That Albirex did it despite retaining only six players from their quadruple-winning side of 2016 squad speaks much about Yoshinaga's coaching abilities.
But Tampines coach Juergen Raab must have something up his sleeve, having watched Albirex three times in pre-season.
The German said as much when he revealed that they will achieve nothing by sitting back.
In other words, expect end-to-end action tonight.
*Tickets for today’s Great Eastern Community Shield are priced at $4 (adults) and $1 (concession) and are available from Sports Hub Tix.