News @ AsiaOne

The ante has been upped

Singapore professional league probably has not seen a better season than this. -TNP
Godfrey Robert

Sat, Apr 28, 2012

Above: Balestier Khalsa (in red) and Harimau Muda (in yellow) are setting the pace in the S-League.

Since the first three years of the S-League, the Singapore professional league probably has not seen a better season in terms of tight contests than this.

Just past the one-third point of the competition, six teams have shown that they are capable of claiming top honours.

Balestier Khalsa, Brunei DPMM, Home United, Tampines Rovers, Harimau Muda and Albirex Niigata are within sight of claiming eventual glory, and this speaks well of the S-League.

The inclusion of DPMM and Malaysia's Harimau Muda has given the S-League added spice and fresh impetus, as the two foreign sides are not only professional in their approach but also thoroughly competitive.

The S-League organisers seemed to have learnt from the bad experiences of having brought in troublesome teams such as Sinchi FC, Sporting Afrique and Liaoning.

They have been more careful in choosing foreign teams and this scrutiny has helped to boost the league.

DPMM have had the experience of playing in the Malaysian League and Harimau Muda, an efficient Malaysian Under-23 side under renowned coach Ong Kim Swee, are a serious outfit.

So, as the league is about to separate the contenders from the also-rans, we see battles on two fronts - the race for the title and the fight to avoid being wooden-spoonists.

But it must be said that one team from the bottom half, SAFFC, better known as the Warriors, are capable of leaping into the recognised half as they have the players and an able coach in Richard Bok to make the transformation.

The Warriors, backed by a strong administration and ample resources, also carry the reputation of being the most successful club since the S-League kicked off in 1996.

Balestier, no doubt, have been the surprise side, perched atop the table.

Three wins on the trot - against Albirex, SAFFC and Harimau Muda - have seen them in full flight as the leading lights with 21 points from 10 games.

Coach Darren Stewart has done a tremendous job with the team, and the chemistry between coach and team and partnership between players have given them the fillip to stay in the zone.

No less than eight players had arrived at Toa Payoh from Stewart's former club, Gombak United, so there is great rapport among the squad members.

Having been in the S-League for three years, Balestier stalwart Paul Cunningham is playing his best football now as a defender (they have conceded the least number of goals, six after 10 games).

It is said that if he continues to impress in the S-League, it won't be long before he gets a call-up from the New Zealand national team.

Tigerish midfield

In Tengku Mushadad and Ridwan Jamil, who have played in all 10 games, Balestier have a formidable duo, a bonus that helps to draw a parallel with the Tigers' inaugural season with the S-League when they boasted the likes of Marko Kraljevic, Paulic Goran and Esad Sejdic.

DPMM suffered their first loss recently at the hands of Home United, but don't read too much into that defeat as DPMM are a formidable team that will bounce back quickly from the one blip.

And teams who have played at the Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium in Bandar Seri Begawan will vouch that they are almost invincible in their own den where they draw more spectators than any other S-League club.

Their foreign acquisitions, such as Ivan Jerkovic and Basiru Osman, have settled in well at their new home and are set to cause opponents major problems with their skills and strong ability.

Pre-season favourites Home United, currently lying third, had a rather shaky start, but are now coming good.

In Frederic Mendy, they have a superb goal-poacher, and the Protectors' recent qualification into the next round of the AFC Cup is a clear indication that they are a team to watch.

Defending champions Tampines Rovers have been a bit inconsistent, but have surged to fourth and are justifiably only a point behind Home.

In fact, they beat Home 2-0 in a big clash recently to renew the rivalry of old.

"Old horse" Aleksandar Duric is their main beacon of hope with his clear eye for goals.

The biggest disappointment has been Geylang United, lying in an unfamiliar third from bottom with six points from nine games.

The lesson for them: The 2012 S-League is more demanding than the past few seasons.

That can only be a welcome reality for local soccer.

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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