Football: Battle of SPL title contenders as Tampines Rovers face Lion City Sailors

Jordan Webb of Tampines Rovers celebrating after scoring the second goal on March 10, 2020. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

SINGAPORE - An early season clash of title contenders will unfold on Wednesday (March 17) as Tampines Rovers face the Lion City Sailors at Our Tampines Hub to find out if they can beat the team that Stags chairman Desmond Ong has likened to playing the Championship Manager game using a cheat code.

The newly privatised Sailors incurred Ong's wrath when they poached his star midfielder Shahdan Sulaiman pre-season, and also spent big to bring in coach Aurelio Vidmar, goalkeeper Hassan Sunny and attacker Gabriel Quak with lofty ambitions of winning the Singapore Premier League (SPL) in their debut season.

However, despite an embarrassment of talents, the Sailors looked like they had not quite gelled as a team after being held 1-1 by comeback boys Tanjong Pagar United in their opening match on March 6.

Shahdan impressed with his penetrative passes while Quak, who rocked the bar in the second half, was a frequent threat with his incisive movement, but the team chemistry was lacking, with striker Andy Pengelly rarely involved other than his equaliser.

The Stags then showed them how it is done by beating the Jaguars 2-0 through a brace from Jordan Webb last Saturday. They had opened their SPL campaign on March 1 with a 1-0 win over Balestier Khalsa before succumbing 2-0 to holders Brunei DPMM five days later.

Webb felt that his team have the edge in terms of continuity, having worked with coach Gavin Lee for a season. The 31-year-old Canadian, who had his most prolific season last year with 21 goals, added: "To win the league, you need a good coach, a good system and winning form. Gavin is the best because he sees options and possibilities which others don't.

He puts me in positions on the pitch where I can be more successful, and as long as I fulfil my defensive responsibilities, he gives me the freedom to take on players or drop deep to get the ball."

Despite being just 29, Lee has won over senior footballers and plaudits with his commitment to the game, attention to detail and preference for possession-based attacking football.

Webb also shared how Lee gave him books like former LA Lakers head coach Phil Jackson's The Mindful Athlete to help him control his temperament.

He has improved after spending one-on-one time with Lee, adding: Yes, I still lose my cool every now and then, but what some people don't see is I'm improving with Gavin and there was a stretch of 10 games last season where I didn't receive a booking. Little things like these help the bigger cause."

Tampines have also assembled a quality squad this season, with the departures of striker Khairul Amri, winger Ryotaro Megumi and Shahdan mitigated by the additions of striker Boris Kopitovic and midfielders Kyoga Nakamura and Huzaifah Aziz.

Webb said: "Boris gives us a different type of directness and pure finishing. Huzaifah gives as the aggression we lacked last season, and Kyoga is a technically accomplished footballer. With such quality additions, it's an easy gel for us."

Lee acknowledged that his team have the advantage after warming their engines with seven games while the Sailors have played just one.

He said: "It takes time for the coach to establish team tactics, and for players to understand their responsibilities and what is required of them. Perhaps their communication is not at its strongest yet, but they will get there sooner than later.

"We can't let the scoreline define the narrative of the game. The Sailors have a strong first XI and even a second XI who are game changers, and they were unlucky not to beat Tanjong Pagar.

"Like us, the Sailors want to be on the ball and I foresee a fierce battle for possession. I'm excited about this match because they will also come out to press and play. The team that manage to utilise possession better should go on to win."

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