SINGAPORE - After winning the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title last season to end a six-year foreign domination, the Lion City Sailors looked set to pick up more trophies this year.
This especially after they splashed the cash in the off season to bolster their squad, adding Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne - who has featured in the Uefa Champions League - Brazilian defender Pedro Henrique and former South Korean captain Kim Shin-wook.
But the Sailors have instead flattered to deceive at the start of their title defence, despite picking up six out of a possible nine points. They clinched the Community Shield with a 2-1 win over Albirex on Feb 19 but kicked off their SPL campaign with a come-from-behind 3-1 victory over Hougang United.
A shock 1-0 loss to Geylang International on March 4 - their first defeat in 20 league matches - followed and last Sunday, they were unconvincing yet again in their 1-0 win over Tampines Rovers and had to be bailed out by a penalty kick amid some controversial refereeing decisions.
And with Albirex Niigata, their main rivals for the championship, up next at the Jurong East Stadium on Friday, the Sailors will need all hands on deck.
But Sailors head coach Kim Do-hoon is not worried, instead urging for patience.
He said: "Of course, we are not fully satisfied. I know as well, that fans can be feeling disappointed and that is understandable. We know there is a big room for improvement.
"I don't want to make excuses but we have brought several new players in and it will take time for the team to adapt to each other. Some of our players also arrived late or have not been fully fit. We have not been able to put out our best team yet."
Lestienne arrived short of match fitness and has yet to start for the Sailors, Brazilian playmaker Diego Lopes picked up a muscle injury during pre-season and made only his first start of the season against the Stags. On the local front, 2020 SPL Player of the Year Gabriel Quak made his first appearance last weekend after recovering from a shoulder injury while fellow national team winger Faris Ramli has only featured in one match due to a bout of Covid-19.
The team have also needed to get used to a new front man in 33-year-old Kim, who joined on a three-year deal worth over $3 million to replace Croat forward Stipe Plazibat. While Kim has already scored two goals in three SPL matches, he leads the line in a different fashion compared to Plazibat, who scored 14 goals and had seven assists in 17 matches last term for the Sailors.
Plazibat was a mobile forward who could drop deep to link up play, but the 1.98m Kim is seen as a traditional number nine who serves as the team's target man.
Said coach Kim: "It will take time for the team to adapt to the style of our new striker. He (Kim) is very different to Stipe. We are working hard in training to get the best combination but I have seen that the connection (between Kim and the team) is getting better in training and I am sure we will see that translated into matches. I am not worried about it."
Meanwhile, Albirex head coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga will look to bank on his side's imperious form of late when they face the Sailors. In their last two matches, the Japanese side netted 11 goals, in 6-0 and 5-0 victories over Balestier Khalsa and Young Lions respectively.
Yoshinaga wants his side to show an improved performance from the 2-1 loss to Sailors last February. He said: "It has been almost a month since the Community Shield (defeat). I'm looking forward to seeing if we have developed or not."
Tampines Rovers vs Hougang United
Despite not gaining any points from last week's 1-0 loss to the Sailors, Tampines would have been buoyed by how they performed against the defending champions. They will take that confidence into their first home game of the season against Hougang United at Our Tampines Hub on Friday.
The Cheetahs, who beat Geylang International 3-2 for their first three points, won all three matches against the Stags last season, including 7-3 and 5-1 hammerings.
Balestier Khalsa vs Young Lions
Both sides come into this fixture at the Toa Payoh Stadium on Saturday after conceding five goals each in defeats last week. The Tigers went down 5-3 to Tanjong Pagar while the Young Lions were thumped 5-0 by Albirex.
Balestier, who are still without a win this season, are expected to gain their maiden victory of the campaign against Nazri Nasir's developmental squad but they will need to shape up at the back after letting in 13 goals in three games.
Tanjong Pagar United vs Geylang International
Table toppers Tanjong Pagar will look to maintain their unbeaten start - two wins and a draw - to the season when they host Geylang at the Jurong East Stadium on Saturday. Their unbeaten run in the league is now at six matches, stretching back to the end of last season.
The Eagles will look to get back to winning ways. They started their campaign with a headline grabbing 1-0 win over the Sailors but suffered a late 3-2 loss to Hougang last week.