Football: Revamped Tampines starting on a clean slate

Former Croatia Under-17 captain Ivan Dzoni will be one of the new faces to look out for. Tampines will face Philippines side Global FC in today's play-off to qualify for the AFC Champions League
Former Croatia Under-17 captain Ivan Dzoni will be one of the new faces to look out for. Tampines will face Philippines side Global FC in today's play-off to qualify for the AFC Champions League. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS HARVEY

A new-look Tampines Rovers will kick off their season today and all eyes will be on how Akbar Nawas' side shapes up in this new era.

A year ago, the Stags started the season with razzle-dazzle, the arrivals of former Arsenal and Liverpool player Jermaine Pennant and several Singapore internationals sent expectations soaring.

What followed though was a long season dogged by cash woes and inconsistency, culminating in Pennant's departure and the team finishing without a trophy.

Now, following a flurry of signings, the reboot button has been well and truly pressed as the Stags play Global FC of the Philippines.

The clash at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila is a one-legged Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League qualifier.

The Stags fell at this stage last year, losing 1-3 to Indian side Mohun Bagan and Akbar was quick to temper expectations.

Pressed on his thoughts ahead of the match, the tactician, who took over from V. Sundramoorthy last May following the latter's appointment as Singapore national football caretaker coach, said: "It's always important to start well but it's important to note we are still in pre-season mode. It will take a while to get in the swing of things.

"We are happy with our signings but it will take some time for the new players to gel."

Change has indeed swept through the club.

From a new shirt sponsor - the Stags ended a 15-year association with Hyundai - to a new foreign contingent, today's starting line-up could be markedly different from the one that beat Global 5-2 on aggregate in last year's Singapore Cup.

The versatile Hafiz Abu Sujad, who scored once in each leg against Global, signed for Thailand League Two club Big Bang Chula United this month.

Aside from Pennant, key foreign players from last season, Jordan Webb and Billy Mehmet, have also left.

In addition, injuries have robbed the Stags of playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman (calf strain) and striker Fazrul Nawaz (knee ligaments).

But Akbar insists morale has not been hit by the revamp. The Stags have beefed up their ranks with former Croatia Under-17 captain Ivan Dzoni, 22, Japanese midfielder Ryutaro Megumi, 23, and South Korean midfielder Son Yong Chan, 25.

Singapore internationals Daniel Bennett, Madhu Mohana and Khairul Amri have also joined, among others.

"I don't want to compare this team with last season's squad. But the spirit is good. In fact, their work ethic and team spirit are their biggest strengths," said Akbar.

He is also happy with a new coaching structure, in which director of football excellence Jita Singh, who guided Singapore to the 1980 Malaysia Cup, acts as a mentor for the coaching staff.

"It's a good arrangement. I don't need to say more about Jita's profile and he adds a lot of experience to the backroom staff," said Akbar.

On Global FC, he said: "We played them twice last year so we know what they're about.

"They are a physical side from top to bottom and we have to be careful of that.

"I have a starting XI in mind but I don't want to give too much away at this point in time."

All will be revealed this evening, as the Stags charge into a new age.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2017, with the headline 'Revamped Tampines starting on a clean slate'. Print Edition | Subscribe