SINGAPORE - What a difference two months can make. On March 3, Tampines Rovers and Hougang United lined up in a lip-smacking opener to the Singapore Premier League (SPL) season, touted as a clash between potential title rivals.
Tampines trotted off the pitch at the Jalan Besar Stadium with a handsome 5-1 win, aided by a red card to Hougang's Justin Hui, which preceded the Stags' four second-half goals.
Since then, however, the two teams have had contrasting fortunes in the SPL.
Hougang have won five of their seven games and currently sit second. Tampines, meanwhile, have not won any of their last four league matches and are fourth in the nine-team SPL.
As the teams prepare to meet again on Sunday (May 5) at Our Tampines Hub, Hougang are eager to prove that the first result between the two sides this season was one off.
"We all know Tampines are a good team, there's no denying that," said star attacker Faris Ramli, who has scored six SPL goals this season.
"But we all know the 5-1 scoreline did not reflect the game. We suffered a red card at 1-0 down and they made use of the extra player to score more.
"The fact we managed to equalise (to 1-1) with 10 men shows we have the quality to match them."
Tampines coach Gavin Lee was also keen to downplay the thrashing earlier this term.
"In terms of whether the scoreline reflected the quality of both teams, I think it didn't," said Lee.
"Both sides have good sets of players, but on that day and in that game, we were the better team and they didn't perform, and when those two factors come together, that (big win) can happen.
"Are we expecting a similar scoreline on Sunday? No. They'll definitely be fired up to prove the previous result was a fluke."
On Tampines' recent struggles in the league, Lee said the team's exertions in the AFC Cup - games usually take place in mid-week - have affected their consistency. Most recently, the Stags needed a last-minute goal to beat Myanmarese champions Yangon United, at Jalan Besar on Wednesday (May 1).
The 28-year-old acknowledged that the continental competition is "not easy physically" on his players as the matches are played at "an international tempo".
Lee added: "We've spoken about it as a team and we know it's part of the privilege of playing in a continental tournament... Whether (fatigue) will play a big part on Sunday, I don't know.
"But we've done our usual recovery protocols and hope the players are fresh, and physically and tactically ready."
Despite their good run of form, Hougang are looking to avoid a second loss on the trot, following their gutwrenching 3-2 defeat in injury time to league leaders Brunei DPMM last Sunday. The Cheetahs had led 2-1, and a win would have taken them top of the SPL.
"The loss was a hard pill to swallow, but we've addressed it as a team and we are in better spirits now," said Faris.
"This season, we have shown we have the mental strength to bounce back from our two (previous) losses by winning the next game both times, and we will have to do it again.
"We have shown we are capable of competing at the top of the SPL, so this is a game we definitely want to take three points from."