Hougang United v Home United
Jalan Besar Stadium, 7.30pm
They were rated as no-hopers even before a ball was kicked this season and the naysayers rightfully had their reasons to dismiss Hougang United.
The Cheetahs were wooden spoonists in the 10-team league last season. Since their S-League debut in 1998 (as Marine Castle), Hougang have never placed higher than seventh. As they face Home United at Jalan Besar Stadium tonight however, victory could see Hougang go as high as third and the club are looking good for a top-six spot.
Currently in sixth on 22 points but with two games in hand over third-placed Brunei DPMM (26), Hougang's new-found resurgence can be attributed to a solid squad that boast a host of quality signings.
The additions of strikers Jozef Kaplan from Slovakia and Croat Stipe Plazibat, along with 2015 S-League Player of the Year Fumiya Kogure, have bolstered the side.
The trio have scored 15 of Hougang's 22 goals this season. With eight matches to go, Hougang are likely to break their goal tally (28) from last year - thanks to their prolific attackers.
Coach K. Balagumaran said: "There's a lot of potential in this team. I'm building a strong squad, not only for this year but also for next year. The players all want to stay together and keep it going.
"But it was difficult to bring the players in, considering our position last season. Other clubs like Tampines Rovers and Home approached Fumiya but he signed for us - it surprised us that we attracted him."
Familiarity was also a key factor in retaining and recruiting the other players for the former Negeri Sembilan and LionsXII assistant coach, who took charge of the Cheetahs at the end of last season.
"Iqbal (Hussain) and (M. Anumanthan) played for me when I was in charge of the national Under-15s. As for Kaplan, I've worked with him at Negeri Sembilan before. Because of how familiar we are with one another - they know my style and my philosophy of football."
Players were also quick to express their satisfaction at Hougang. Former Albirex Niigata midfielder Kogure said: "I came to Hougang because I wanted to challenge myself and play for a local team.
"Bala is also a reason because he has good discipline and I like his style of play. This year at Hougang has been good for me and every day is an exciting one."
The coach also sang the praises of his top marksman and former Japanese J2 League player Plazibat.
"Even though he's Croatian, he carries a Japanese culture (competitive) and gives us a unique edge in attack where he clicks well together with Fumiya and Kaplan," he said.
Plazibat, who has 10 goals this season, added: "I wanted to bring something new to Hougang - a strong fighting spirit and a winning mentality. Their last-place finish last season is no problem. Now's a new one.
"I like Bala because he's very calm and puts no pressure on me. I'm happy he lets me play freely and that's why I'm on fire this season.
"Against Home, we need to go for the win because they're only three points above us."