SINGAPORE - After hunting down Albirex Niigata last season to win their maiden Singapore Premier League (SPL) title, the country's wealthiest football club Lion City Sailors know there is a bounty on their heads this year.
They are the first local champions since 2014, ending the dominance of foreign sides in the SPL and everyone wants to beat them, especially runners-up Albirex.
The Japanese have reacted by re-installing Kazuaki Yoshinaga as head coach. He guided them to championships in 2017 and 2018 and also won the Coach of the Year award on both occasions. The White Swans have further strengthened their squad with the addition of a former Japan international, Tadanari Lee.
Sailors skipper Hariss Harun, who also captains the Singapore national team, understands the pressure involved in retaining a league title. He was part of the Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) side that became Malaysian Super League champions for the first time in 2014. The club have won the championship every year since.
Hariss, 31, who is expected to play in central defence this term for the Sailors, said: "What I learnt at JDT is that winning your first title is difficult but defending it is way tougher. When you're winning things, it's normal that people will want it to crumble. That happens everywhere. We have to embrace this pressure and show our quality on the pitch.
"Yes, we are defending champions but that is what we did last year. We can't look back on that now because this year is going to be much, much tougher. We must be ready."
Sailors head coach Kim Do-hoon, who replaced Australian Aurelio Vidmar midway through the campaign last June, echoed Hariss' sentiments.
The South Korean, 51, said: "Every game we play will be challenging. Every match, the opponents will put in their very best effort to beat us, and so will we."
His team have proven to be resilient though. Kim is undefeated in his 11 games in charge, with seven wins and four draws. The Sailors have not conceded more than a goal in any of these matches.
The Sailors, who begin their title defence against Hougang United on Sunday (Feb 27), spent the pre-season working on faster transitions during games, and improving their fitness levels.
This will be vital given the packed calendar. The Sailors, who beat Albirex last Saturday (Feb 19) to lift he Community Shield, are competing on three fronts - the SPL, Singapore Cup and Asian Champions League (ACL), which sees them heading to Thailand from April 15-May 1 for the group-stage matches.
They are in Group F, alongside Chinese champions Shandong Taishan, Japanese Emperor's Cup holders Urawa Red Diamonds and either South Korea's Daegu FC or Thai powerhouses Buriram United.
The Singapore Cup, cancelled for the last two years due to the pandemic, starts on Oct 25.
To match their ambitions, the Sailors - backed by Forrest Li, billionaire founder of Garena and Shopee - have upped the ante in the transfer market.
After spending an SPL record $2.9 million last year to sign Brazilian playmaker Diego Lopes from Portuguese side Rio Ave, they have added Singapore internationals Izwan Mahbud (goalkeeper) and M. Anumanthan (midfielder) to their squad and boosted their foreign ranks.
They brought in Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne, who has featured in the Uefa Champions League, paid $2 million for Brazilian defender Pedro Henrique and snapped up former South Korean captain Kim Shin-wook on a three-year deal worth more than $3 million.
Kim, who scored a brace on his debut in the Community Shield, said: "My teammates have been great and have helped me settle down both on and off the pitch.
"We are confident that we can put up good performances, but it is clear to us that we will need to give 120 per cent in every game.
"We have big ambitions, and I will try my best to assist the coach and the team in reaching such goals progressively. We will tackle one at a time, and we won't fall back regardless of results."