Football: Clash of in-form strikers as Sailors face Albirex in Singapore Premier League

New Sailors striker Stipe Plazibat, in training at St Wilfred football field on Oct 22, 2020.
New Sailors striker Stipe Plazibat, in training at St Wilfred football field on Oct 22, 2020.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - Eight minutes was all Stipe Plazibat needed to open his Lion City Sailors account last Saturday (Oct 17). By the end of the match, he had scored another and led his team to a 4-0 win over Geylang International.

After a rough start to the season - a 1-1 draw against Tanjong Pagar United was followed by the 4-0 drubbing by Tampines Rovers - the Sailors are finally on calmer waters with their first victory, and Plazibat will be key in their title tilt.

If the Sailors were investing in the potential of 23-year-old Andy Pengelly, who scored against the Jaguars but was released during the coronavirus-induced break, they are now buying proven quality in Plazibat.

The 31-year-old Croat has amassed 56 goals in 71 Singapore Premier League (SPL) matches since he joined Hougang United in 2016.

Ahead of Saturday's (Oct 24) game against Albirex Niigata at Jurong East Stadium, Sailors coach Aurelio Vidmar said: "It's obvious what Stipe brings. He left Hougang as the league's topscorer (five goals in three games before the SPL was suspended) and he has hit the ground running with us.

"He has experience, strength and he is a very smart player in how he brings many players into the game. Off the pitch, he is a great guy who gets along seamlessly with the boys. He was a former Home United player and he is like a son who never left.

"It was a good win over Geylang - we had no passengers and we levelled our goal difference. The break was good for us because I arrived in December with my ideas and it takes time for everyone to understand it.

"With the big break, it feels we are in our second season now, and everyone has a much clearer picture of what we have to do on the pitch."

With the season shortened from three rounds to two rounds of fixtures (a maximum of 24 games to 16), and defending champions Brunei DPMM's participation hanging in the balance, Vidmar knows beating fellow contenders Albirex could be decisive in landing the title with potentially just 10 games left after the match.

Apart from DPMM who won their sole game this term, Albirex are the SPL's only unbeaten team and are second with eight points from four games.

The Sailors are four points back. But with a game in hand, they know they can seize the initiative with a win over the Japanese side.

Plazibat said: "It will be a tough game. Albirex change many of their players every season, but we can be sure they have a very fit team. I feel this season, they play more long balls to the channels and we have to be mindful of that.

"It has been a smooth transition since I joined the Sailors in September. There is pressure on me to score the goals for a big team like us to win, but I like it this way because I take it as motivation to prove something.

"The ambition is clear at this club - to win the SPL and play in the AFC Champions League. And the club have backed up this ambition by bringing in quality coaches and players. Now, we have to beat teams like Albirex to show we are serious and legit."

Albirex, champions from 2016 to 2018, are no pushovers though. Since 2017, and with the exception of the 2019 Community Shield shootout, the White Swans had not lost in 13 games - nine wins and four draws with an aggregate score of 29-10 - to Home United before they privatised and became the Sailors.

This season, they swept aside Geylang and Young Lions 4-0, and showed character to grab late equalisers in 2-2 draws against Balestier Khalsa and Tanjong Pagar.

In forward Reo Nishiguchi, they also have an in-form attacker who has scored in all four league games so far.

Yet, Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi remains the perfectionist. He said: "We are not satisfied with our results and performances so far. We need to defend better and be more clinical in front of goal.

"We are aware Stipe is a good player who has J.League experience (with Gifu in 2013 and 2014), but there are many other star players in Lion City Sailors. We can only focus on playing our own football.

"Reo's goals are a result of our teamwork, and we have to do better if we are to beat the Sailors. It is important to keep winning, as our early-season target is to win the league."