Football: More to come, promises in-form Ilhan Fandi, as Albirex face Sailors in big SPL clash

Ilhan Fandi trains with fellow Albirex Niigata teammates at Jurong East Stadium on July 27, 2022. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Ilhan Fandi is one of the most in-form strikers in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) with eight goals in seven matches for Albirex Niigata.

Ahead of the White Swans' top-of-the-table clash with league leaders Lion City Sailors at the Jurong East Stadium on Friday (July 29), however, the 19-year-old said there is much more still to come from him.

"I came back from a bad injury and I'm building my fitness up slowly... and I think I'm not at my 100 per cent yet, even till now," he told The Straits Times before a training session on Wednesday.

Ilhan, the third of Fandi Ahmad's four sons, tore the anterior talo-fibular ligament in his left ankle while playing for former club Young Lions on April 2.

The injury kept him out for about nine weeks and resulted in him missing the Hanoi SEA Games in May. It also delayed his debut for Albirex, whom he signed for in late April after completing his national service.

Once he returned to the pitch, though, he hit the ground running.

He needed just 19 minutes to score after coming on as a substitute in his Albirex debut against Geylang International, and has since added another seven goals, the highlight being a stunning bicycle kick against Balestier Khalsa two weeks ago.

"To be honest, I didn't know I had that in my locker," the 1.83m Ilhan said with a cheeky grin. "I was even joking with my brother (Ikhsan) and asked him: 'Did you know I could do that?' We both agreed we didn't!"

The wonder goal is testament to the Ilhan's soaring confidence. But he was quick to add he felt some of his performances for Albirex have been "not up to standard".

"Yes I've been scoring and people may think I'm (already) in the national team or things like that, but I'm here to learn," he said.

"I'm still growing as a player and I'm always asking my teammates and the coaches what I should do better. They all know my goal is to play overseas and they want to help me reach my goal. This also plays part in why I've gelled so well with the team."

Albirex head coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga praised Ilhan's drive, saying: "His character is excellent... The great thing about Ilhan is he is willing to take advice that is given to him, and try to improve. He is not easily satisfied."

Ilhan Fandi (centre) trains with fellow Albirex Niigata teammates at Jurong East Stadium on July 27, 2022. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Ilhan said he is grateful for his coach's belief in him. At the start of the year, he set a target of 12 goals - he has 10 so far, having scored twice for the Young Lions before moving to Albirex. His two other objectives are winning the SPL title and helping teammate Kodai Tanaka (17 goals) to the top-scorer award.

While Albirex are second and five points behind the Sailors, they have played one game fewer and a win against the defending champions will swing the title race in their favour.

"Every game with the Sailors is like a final... You know how important the game is and how (tight) it is at the top. A little slip could cost you the title," said Ilhan.

"I love the pressure (of a big game)... Our team is on a good run and momentum-wise, we're on a good track and we'll be 100 per cent ready for the Sailors."

Tampines Rovers v Hougang (Saturday, 5.30pm, Our Tampines Hub)

Both sides are reeling from losses after conceding late, and need the three points to stay in touch with third-placed Tanjong Pagar who have 29 points. Fourth-placed Tampines are on 22 but have a game in hand while Hougang are further point adrift in fifth. A draw would not suit either team.

Tanjong Pagar v Geylang (Saturday, 5.30pm, Jurong East)

Tanjong Pagar are counting on in-form striker Reo Nishiguchi to help them claim their third victory in four games but the sixth-placed Eagles are flying high. Last week's win over Hougang mean they are unbeaten in six matches. The last time they had a similar stretch was at the start of the 2016 season.

Balestier v Young Lions (Sunday, 5.30pm, Toa Payoh)

Second-from-bottom Balestier badly need a pick-me-up and may see this as the perfect opportunity. The Tigers have won just once in their last 10 matches and that was a 1-0 victory over the Young Lions on June 25. The national developmental side continue to struggle, with just one win all year. They have also conceded 21 goals in their last five matches.

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