Tonight's DPMM-Tampines meeting is 'title-decider'
Both Tampines and DPMM's coaches believe clash between their sides could decide S.League title
BRUNEI DPMM v TAMPINES ROVERS
(Tonight, Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium, 8.15pm)
Before a ball was even kicked, Tampines Rovers were widely touted as favourites for the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League title.
Early on in the campaign, it looked as though the favourites' tag was misplaced, as Tampines struggled for form and consistency, and their fortunes were not helped by the fact they had to replace three of their foreigners over the course of the season.
But, with a month to go, it looks like the Stags are set to mount a late title charge. Sitting third, they are nine points off Brunei DPMM FC.
But if they beat the leaders at the Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium tonight, they will be right in the mix, thanks to their two games in hand.
After five wins in their last six matches, belief is emanating from the Tampines dressing room, with four matches to go.
"The boys understand that this game against DPMM could really turn our season around," coach V Sundramoorthy (left) told the New Paper yesterday.
"What I see in them is a real fire to go out there and try to get the win.
"Obviously, it's our most important game and we're prepared to go all out for the win.
"While there is always a chance as long as it's mathematically possible, losing (tonight) will make things very difficult for us."
The potential implications on the title race are also not lost on Tampines captain, Mustafic Fahrudin.
The 34-year-old, who has been involved in all five of the club's championships to date, is confident his side's experience and form will stand them in good stead as they aim for maximum points. "I think our advantage this time around is that we have won three games in a row," he said.
"It's been a big problem for us this year but the confidence and consistency is now really growing in this team.
"We have big-name players, experienced players who have done it all before, and we're ready. This could be crucial as we have the experience to know how to handle the pressure, and how to act in the big moments.
"Now, we must believe we can win in Brunei, continue our winning streak and push DPMM all the way to the end."
The fact that Tampines are shaping up as DPMM's main challengers is perhaps even more remarkable, considering how Sundram has had to reshuffle his squad.
Foreign signings Fabrice Noel, Eddy Viator and Srecko Mitrovic all departed by the halfway mark of the season, although they were astutely replaced by goalkeeper Rodrigo Pacheco, playmaker Roberto Alviz and striker Rodrigo Tosi.
Another mid-season signing that has had a real impact is the tenacious midfielder Isa Halim, who has added bite and drive in the engine room.
A Malaysian Super League winner with the LionsXII in 2013, Isa is determined to help Tampines reclaim their place at the summit of Singapore football.
"For a club as big as Tampines Rovers, finding ourselves empty-handed at the end of the season is unthinkable," the midfielder said.
"Of course, there is the chance that other teams could do us a favour against Brunei in the last few games, but it's better that we keep our fate in our own hands.
"We have to be really focused on the task at hand because the result from Wednesday's game is going to shape our season."
The wait is almost over for Steve Kean and his men.
With four games left, Brunei DPMM are tantalisingly close to their first Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League title.
However, there remains one big hurdle for them to overcome tonight when they entertain Tampines Rovers at the Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium.
The Stags are third, but are looming as DPMM's main challengers given they are nine points behind but have two matches in hand.
The equation is simple enough for Kean's (right) charges: Win tonight and they will, at the very least, still have a three-point lead even if Tampines win their games in hand.
Even then, there are still a couple tricky ties to come for the Bruneians, against reigning champions Warriors FC and Balestier Khalsa in their final two games of the campaign, but Kean is aware of the significance of tonight's clash.
"By far, it is our biggest game of the season," he told the New Paper yesterday.
"It's one of those cliches, but we just have to treat the game like a final.
"In years gone by, we haven't had a good record against Tampines and obviously this season we've had better results.
"But I think at this stage it's not really about the form table…
"I've stressed to the lads that it's all about who turns up on the night that counts."
DPMM enter the clash in good form with four wins in their last five outings, although they threw away a two-goal lead in the last seven minutes of a 4-4 draw against Home United in their last home match.
Said the 48-year-old: "As we recently learnt against Home United, you can't take anything for granted. The three points were in our hands, there was no indication Home were going to come back.
"We've watched the game over and over again, spent hours on it on the training ground and I think the players have learnt their lesson - to make sure to kill off the game when we have a comfortable lead."
More significant for Kean is the memory of the meltdown his players suffered in last year's title race.
Holding a five-point lead with five games to go, DPMM managed to win just one of those matches and were ultimately pipped to the title by the Warriors on the season's final day.
Kean, however, believes his players have learnt from that experience and is backing them to go all the way this year.
"It would be great to win the league, and I said at the beginning of the season that our goal would be to do better than last year," the Scot said.
"Last year, we led for most of the way and then it slipped away from us right at the end.
"It would be great to win the title not just for the club, but also for the group of players that have been here for a long time and have come a long way with the team.
"The thing is, surprises can come from anywhere.
"We're not getting ahead of ourselves and we're only thinking about Wednesday, not the last three games after that.
"If we can get the three points, we'll be in a fantastic position."
- GABRIEL TAN
For a club as big as Tampines Rovers, finding ourselves empty-handed at the end of the season is unthinkable.
— Tampines Rovers midfielder Isa Halim (above)
Brunei DPMM hold a nine-point lead over title rivals Tampines Rovers, who have two games in hand. DPMM were in a similar position last season, but blew their title chances after winning only one of their last five matches.
THIS SEASON'S CLASHES
- DPMM 2 Tampines 0 (S.League)
- Tampines 1 DPMM 1 (S.League)
- DPMM 3 Tampines 1 (S'pore Cup)
- Tampines 1 DPMM 0 (S'pore Cup)