SINGAPORE - Only three points separated the top two as the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title race was decided only on the final day on Saturday (Dec 5), and the Football Association of Singapore Awards Night looks set to be just as keenly contested on Monday.
Unsurprisingly, with a collection of stars within their squad, Lion City Sailors produced two of the three nominees - Stipe Plazibat and Gabriel Quak - for the Player of the Year award despite finishing behind champions Albirex Niigata and Tampines Rovers in the SPL. White Swans forward Tomoyuki Doi is the third candidate.
Geylang International coach Noor Ali's pick to win was his former player Quak, as he said: "Tomoyuki stepped up and was more prominent in the second half of the season, and Stipe was doing his goal-scoring job really well before he got injured.
"But Gabriel was the one who did more throughout the season with a more all-round game. I coached him at Geylang in 2017, and the Thailand stint he had in 2018 really changed him mentally, and he has become a different player after that."
Football consultant Khairul Asyraf also tipped Quak to win, but saw the merits of the other two nominees.
He added: "Stipe found a new lease of life after being reverted to his No. 9 position instead of the midfield role he played at Hougang last year. As a reference point, he went back to doing what he does best - scoring lots of goals to become the league's top scorer.
"Doi also did well to get into double figures, but as an inside forward, he is a different player from Stipe, who has been a fox in the box."
While the Coach of the Year award features three nominees in Albirex's Keiji Shigetomi, Tampines' Gavin Lee and the Sailors' Aurelio Vidmar, local football observers feel it will be a two-horse race between the Japanese and the Singaporean.
Khairul is plumping for Lee, whom he felt did well with a limited budget compared to Vidmar, who helmed the better-resourced Sailors.
He added: "Gavin has shown his tactical maturity and flexibility this season, toggling fluidly between a back three and a back four. This season, his team were more measured and disciplined, and you see them defending better in the middle blocks, with players like Jordan Webb coming back to defend instead of waiting for the ball to transition into attack.
"Other than that, what many don't see is how well he has timed the training load in the different phases of this coronavirus-affected season - there were not many muscular injuries in his team despite the packed schedule."
Hougang United coach Clement Teo had kind words for Shigetomi, but also leaned towards Lee, who was the only coach to crack Albirex and mastermind the double over the White Swans this season.
He said: "Shigetomi is a dedicated coach who uses his players according to their strengths and manages to get the best out of a bunch of young players, some of whom were just university players without professional football experience. He also has tricks up his tactical sleeve - Hiroyoshi Kamata was an attacker last season and played at left-back this season.
"But Gavin edges it for me because of how he has stuck to his philosophy, got his players to buy in and created an identity of possesion-based, passing football at Tampines. They ran Albirex close, but were unlucky to drop points elsewhere. In any case, Gavin definitely represents the future of local coaches."
But for Balestier Khalsa coach Marko Kraljevic, who won the Singapore Cup and Coach of the Year gong in 2014, the award has to go to the Japanese.
He said: "Shigetomi recognised that fitness was key and worked on that, his team were at least 20 per cent fitter than anyone else, and he managed to instil professionalism and teamwork in his players that took them to the next level.
"He deserves the award because he led a group, that in my opinion were not the best team in the league, to win the title; he made things happen."
The other awards which will be presented at the ceremony include the SPL Team of the Year, Goal of the Year, best referee and assistant referee.