Football: Jaguars search for 'hunger and desire' ahead of crunch SPL date with Stags

Tanjong Pagar United players celebrate after scoring a goal against Tampines Rovers, on May 28, 2022. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - Suddenly, Tanjong Pagar United are peering nervously over their shoulders.

While Lion City Sailors and Albirex Niigata wrest for this season's Singapore Premier League (SPL) title, the Jaguars have consistently been the "best of the rest", occupying third place since May.

But as they prepare to clash with fourth-placed Tampines Rovers at the Jurong East Stadium on Saturday (Aug 13), they are desperate to regain momentum for the final stretch of games and hang on to their spot, which could come with AFC Cup qualification.

Tanjong Pagar have suffered back-to-back losses against Geylang International and bottom side the Young Lions, and a third defeat on the bounce would see Tampines, who have a game in hand, pull to within one point of the Jaguars.

Jaguars head coach Hasrin Jailani, however is playing it cool.

"We don't need to press the panic button," he told The Straits Times. "We're still leading the pack (in the race for third). We went through a bit of a slump but we have remained positive and this game is a chance for us to start afresh."

Hasrin, 46, a former Singapore midfielder, said he has called on his players to "translate their hunger and desire" into solid performances the same way they did for the first half of the season, saying this has been lacking a little in recent performances.

"But that is normal in football," he continued. "Over a season, (form) will read like a graph chart. Earlier in the season we went up, and now we've gone down a little bit."

He admitted that the Tampines game will be "one of the most important games of the season" for his team.

"When we meet teams like Tampines or (fifth-placed) Hougang, it basically becomes a head-to-head," he said.

His opposite number Gavin Lee, however, insists his players will treat it like any other game.

"Within that context (of the race for third), yeah it may seem a little bit more significant but... no one game is more important than any other. They all carry the same number of points," said Lee.

Like Tanjong Pagar, Tampines have endured choppy form - both sides have won only two of their last seven matches - although the Stags enjoyed a morale-boosting 4-1 win over Geylang last week.

Lee, 31, said his players have not eased up, noting that "one result does not define turning the corner" and are expecting a tough battle on Saturday.

Said the coach: "We often talk about how we focus only on what we can control. We can't control Tanjong Pagar or how they will perform. So we're preparing for the best version of them.

"Anyway, you can flip (Tanjong Pagar's recent losses) around and say they have everything to prove in the next game."

Despite their recent checkered results, both teams boast reliable goalscorers and will be counting on them to deliver again.

Tanjong Pagar's Reo Nishiguchi has 17 goals this season and grabbed braces in each of the previous two meetings between the two teams this term.

Tampines targetman Boris Kopitovic, meanwhile, leads the SPL's scorers' chart with 22 goals, with 10 of them coming in his last eight games.

Other fixtures

Balestier v Hougang (Friday, 7.45pm, Toa Payoh)

Hougang have carried their good form since their return from the AFC Cup in June, into August, and were impressive in their 3-3 draw with second-placed Albirex in the last game.

Beleaguered Balestier, meanwhile, are smarting from a 4-0 defeat by Sailors last Saturday.

Young Lions v Sailors (Saturday, 5.30pm, Jalan Besar)

The Young Lions are licking their wounds after a 7-1 thrashing by Albirex, their biggest loss in a woeful season.

The developmental side have conceded four or more goals in five of their last eight games, and more pain could come their way. SPL leaders Sailors cantered to the win over Balestier even after resting half their first XI.

This will be the first game for the Sailors this season without Kim Do-hoon at the helm. The South Korean parted ways with the Sailors on Thursday, just one day after receiving a three-match ban for headbutting Tampines assistant coach Mustafic Fahrudin on July 24. Sailors' academy technical director Luka Lalic will lead the team in the interim.

Albirex v Geylang (Sunday, 5.30pm, Jurong East)

Geylang are hoping their defeat by Tampines was a blip - they had gone seven games unbeaten before that - but have a tough ask against a soaring Albirex.

The Japanese won 8-2 in their last meeting in May, although the two teams had drawn 2-2 a month prior.

The White Swans are sweating over 22-goal striker Kodai Tanaka, who suffered a nasty-looking ankle injury against the Young Lions.

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