SINGAPORE - Change and renewal may be the buzzwords for most clubs in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) with every new campaign heralding significant changes within squads, but Balestier Khalsa are going against the grain this year.
In a bid to improve on their fifth-placed finish in the league last season, the Tigers have retained at least 90 per cent of their squad for the new campaign, which kicks off on Saturday (March 13).
They are also the only club in the league to have retained all four foreigners from last season.
Croatian forwards Kristijan Krajcek and Sime Zuzul are into their third seasons with the club while Japanese forward Shuhei Hoshino and Serbian defender Ensar Bruncevic will be heading into their sophomore campaigns.
Said coach Marko Kraljevic, 55: "That (continuity) is very important for us and we decided not to change much from last season. I felt this would be good for the club and for the players here to know we have a plan for them.
"The players and I know each other well so there hasn't been the need for too many players to come in and need time to adjust to us."
Balestier are looking to qualify for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup this year after missing out on a berth by one point in the previous campaign.
The second-highest ranked local team in the league and the Singapore Cup winners will qualify for the 2022 AFC Cup.
To do that, Kraljevic wants his side to fix the leak at the back. In 14 games last season, Balestier conceded 28 goals.
He said: "We have to be tighter in our defence and ensure that we bring down the average of goals we let in. Last season, it was two goals a game and this season we need to try and cut that to 1½ at least.
"It's going to be a stronger league this year because everyone has a chance to have a good season. But we must be focused on our objective and we need to show we have improved as a team from last year."
Balestier's aim to qualify for the AFC Cup will likely come under threat from Hougang United, Geylang International or Tanjong Pagar - who have all strengthened significantly this season. The favourites for the title remain defending champions Albirex Niigata, Tampines Rovers and Lion City Sailors.
Geylang, who pipped Balestier to fourth last season, have added Brazilian winger Matheus Moresche, Dutch attacker Sylvano Comvalius and seasoned midfielder Izzdin Shafiq, who captained the Lion City Sailors last year.
Hougang, who finished sixth last term, have snapped up former Geylang striker Khairul Nizam, former national captain Shahril Ishak, former Albirex Niigata top scorer Tomoyuki Doi and fellow Japanese Kaishu Yamazaki.
Tanjong Pagar, who finished last, have grand ambitions this year as well - a sign that this season could prove to be more competitive.
The Jaguars have snapped up Reo Nishiguchi from Albirex Niigata, former Lions forward Khairul Amri and Australian midfielder Blake Ricciuto, who won the 2019 SPL with Brunei DPMM.
Team manager Noh Alam Shah is counting on his side to be "party poopers".
He said: "We are very confident this year compared to the previous season. We've assembled a very balanced squad and we are going to try to finish as high as possible. I've even been telling the players that this is going to be our year. We have prepared really well."
Five players to look out for in the Singapore Premier League this term
1. Armin Bosnjak
Tampines Rovers winger
The Montenegrin replaces Jordan Webb and will have the creative responsibility in a young Stags side. Described by coach Gavin Lee as a "final piece of the jigsaw" due to his decisiveness in the attacking third, Bosnjak, 26, has already opened his account for the side in a pre-season friendly win over Hougang United.
2. Kuraba Kondo
Albirex Niigata midfielder
Capped at Under-15 and U-16 levels for Japan, Kondo, 18, was part of the team that trounced Singapore 11-0 during the Asian Football Confederation U-16 Championship qualifiers in 2017.
3. Khairin Nadim
Young Lions striker
The league's youngest-ever debutant, who made his bow aged 15 years and 298 days last season, will look to improve on the three goals he scored last year.
4. Khairul Amri
Tanjong Pagar striker
Eyebrows were raised when one of Singapore's most celebrated forwards joined last year's wooden spoonists. Khairul, 35, returns to the Singapore Premier League after spending last year in Malaysia and can add to his tally of over 100 goals here.
5. Sylvano Comvalius
Geylang International striker
Geylang may have a scoring machine in their ranks this year. When he played for Bali United in 2017, he scored 34 goals in 37 games. At 1.92m, the 33-year-old Dutchman will be hard to miss.