SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE
Balestier Khalsa v Brunei DPMM
Bishan Stadium, 5.30pm
The Singapore Premier League title talk had revolved around the usual suspects: defending champions Albirex Niigata, local powerhouses Tampines Rovers and Home United, as well as big spenders Hougang United.
But, midway through the first round, only the overlooked Brunei DPMM remain unbeaten even after tough games against Home (1-0), Albirex (0-0) and Tampines (2-1).
DPMM coach Adrian Pennock, facing another tough game against Balestier Khalsa at the Bishan Stadium today, told The Straits Times: "Nobody were talking about us pre-season, but there can always be surprises. Balestier are good going forward and we need to show up if we are to get a positive result.
"Momentum is so important in a league season. Albirex had a fantastic unbeaten run throughout 2018 to win the league and, hopefully, ours will continue on Saturday."
Former Belarus international Andrei Varankou has started well with three goals after being successfully integrated with the other two new imports, Australian midfielder Blake Ricciuto and English centre-back Charlie Clough, alongside DPMM's long-serving locals.
Englishman Pennock, 48, who took over on Dec 1, said: "It is important we get the right people and characters in the team. The imports we got from 30 players on trial from all over the world are excellent and the locals have just been these honest players who want to learn.
"My job was first to get them fit, strong and organised and work on team spirit and bonding."
His side are tactically flexible, able to switch between three or four at the back, and also mentally resilient. A red card saw them play with 10 men for 40 minutes against Albirex.
Balestier will be no pushovers despite missing captain and goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam, who ruptured his Achilles' tendon and will be out for about four months.
In the Singapore international's absence, coach Khidhir Khamis will have to rely on the untested duo of Zacharial Leong and Danial Faris.
He said: "Zaiful is an integral part of how we play and his absence is a big blow on and off the pitch. But we have a squad ready to take up the responsibility of leading and rallying each other until he returns."
The Tigers' tally of eight goals from five games, behind top scorers Tampines (12) and Hougang United (9), can be credited to Croatian forwards Sime Zuzul and Kristijan Krajcek with Daniel Goh, 19, impressing on the right wing.
Khidhir said:"We had a short pre-season, so we are still a work in progress. But I am pleased with the players' willingness to accept change from a soak-and-strike strategy to more expansive football. "
Yesterday, Hougang moved to third in the table with a 1-0 win over Home at the Jalan Besar Stadium.