SINGAPORE - After a coronavirus-induced suspension of more than 200 days, the Singapore Premier League (SPL) is finally back.
Originally a three-round competition, nine teams will now duke it out over just two rounds in a jam-packed nine weeks, starting from Saturday (Oct 17).
With fewer games and the cancellation of the Singapore Cup, the margin for error will be smaller, with big stakes in the form of one trophy, one spot in the AFC Champions League - the continent's top club competition - and two berths in the second-tier AFC Cup up for grabs.
Pole position doesn't mean success
While defending champions Brunei DPMM's participation is still in doubt, and the developmental Young Lions side not in the reckoning for the title, the situation may favour leaders Tampines Rovers, who have already beaten rivals Lion City Sailors once, and who have the benefit of not being distracted by the postponed Asean Club Championship.
With nine points from four games, they have fewer matches remaining, which means more rest in between.
The Stags also re-start with a clean bill of health, with defender Madhu Mohana returning from an ankle ligament tear. While they lost midfielder Safirul Sulaiman to Geylang International, they have also strengthened at both ends by signing veterans Baihakki Khaizan and Fazrul Nawaz, who were clubless after being released by their overseas clubs.
Tampines coach Gavin Lee said: "I told the boys this is like a Formula One race - we have qualified in pole position, but it doesn't mean we will finish first. We have to maintain our level-headedness and quality in games.
"Our position helps, but it is no guarantee (of success). There is the big incentive of playing in next season's Champions League, but our job is to be consistent and play our best regardless of the incentives."
A middle-distance race
Lion City Sailors general manager Badri Ghent agreed that consistency is key with the condensed format, but added that teams that hit the road running will have an advantage.
He said: "If the three rounds were a marathon, we are now looking at a middle-distance race, and a good start will be important because there won't be many games to play catch-up."
The Sailors, who are the SPL's only privatised club, endured a difficult start to the season after being held 1-1 by Tanjong Pagar United before being thumped 4-0 by Tampines, as they slumped to eighth.
During the enforced break, coach Aurelio Vidmar made arguably the biggest transfer move by pinching proven striker Stipe Plazibat from Hougang United to replace Andy Pengelly. Since 2016, the 31-year-old Croat has notched 54 goals in just 70 SPL games.
They received another boost as forward Adam Swandi made use of the downtime to recover fully from a knee ligament tear to mitigate for the loss of wide players Amiruldin Asraf and Ho Wai Loon through injury.
Some may say the long break is of most benefit to the new-look Sailors, who were afforded the time to regroup and gel, but Badri dismissed this notion, arguing: "It is true we needed time, but we also needed matches. As such, we are in the same position as the other teams. What is certain is we have a team that have a lot of hunger to do well and challenge for the title."
There is also no lack of desire in Albirex Niigata, the three-time league champions who have 18 Japanese and eight local players, and believe they can re-capture the title they last won in 2018. The White Swans are also the SPL's only unbeaten team after three games, although DPMM also won their only game.
Albirex general manager Koh Mui Tee said: "We have a group of young Japanese players who cannot return home because of the travel restrictions, and they have a lot of pent-up energy which we hope to unleash upon the restart.
"The break is actually lost time in terms of playing and development time, but we have young and hungry players - who want to become national players or play overseas one day - that can help us meet our target to win the league."
Don't discount underdogs
Outside of the established order, underdogs lurk. Some smell blood, and are not afraid to state their ambitions.
Hougang coach Clement Teo refused to see Plazibat's departure as a big loss, and backed his local boys to raise more than a few eyebrows like they did last season when they finished third to qualify for the AFC Cup.
He said: "Football is not a one-man game. We have Sahil Suhaimi, Shahfiq Ghani, and Shawal Anuar, forwards who all have national team experience and whom I find difficult to start from the bench for the first time. People may say they don't have Stipe's physical presence but they have grown stronger during this break.
"Like some teams, we have lost some younger players to National Service, but we are fortunate to be able to convert players to various positions.
"The cancellation of this year's AFC Cup also motivates us because now that we had a brief taste, we want a full experience of continental competition, and we aim to do better than last year."
Similarly, Geylang will rely more on local players after releasing Greek midfielder Panagiotis Linardos.
Eagles coach Noor Ali said: "The AFF Suzuki Cup is next year, and we have capable local players who will want to be part of that. I have a lot of faith they can finish among the top two local teams this season."
Those without as much resources or strength in depth will be praying hard their players can avoid injuries.
Balestier Khalsa coach Marko Kraljevic said: "We have a small squad, but if our first team stay fit, we can challenge anybody for a place in the top three. We showed that when we took the lead in the 2-2 draws against Albirex and Hougang, and we missed a penalty in the 1-0 loss to Tampines.
"We don't have a big squad like the Sailors, but looking at how the league started, the competition is quite even and there are no sure-win games. It will be a challenge to restart without any friendly games, I just hope we don't pick up any injuries."
While comeback kids Tanjong Pagar are still looking for their first win of the season, they have already upset the odds with well-deserved draws against the Sailors and Albirex.
But the Jaguars' hopes of becoming the SPL's Leeds United are slightly dented as they have just 15 outfield players - including new signing Zulkiffli Hassim - fit for selection, with midfielder Farihin Farkhan and forwards Nashrul Amin and Luiz Junior still some way off a return from serious injuries.
Yet assistant coach Noh Alam Shah said: "We will stick to our mission of being a developmental club to launch coaches and players to bigger clubs.
"We still have to find players, but for a club that came back at the last minute, we can't ask for more from our boys, who have shown great discipline, dedication and determination.
"The comparison won't be fair to Leeds, who are able to press very hard for the full match, while we can't. But there is something to learn - with a tight and mentally strong unit, a bunch of unknowns can achieve good results."