SINGAPORE - After being locked in a season-long duel that saw the Lion City Sailors clinch their maiden Singapore Premier League (SPL) title only on the last day of the 2021 campaign, the defending champions will renew their rivalry with Albirex Niigata in the 2022 Community Shield on Saturday (Feb 19).
The pair were separated by just two points last term and both are keen to open the new season by claiming silverware at Jalan Besar.
Both sides beefed up their firepower considerably in the off-season and the sold-out crowd of 1,000 could possibly get the first glimpse of their marquee forwards.
The Sailors recruited former South Korean international Kim Shin-wook, 33, who will replace Croatian Stipe Plazibat, scorer of 23 goals in 25 games for Lion City in two years.
At Albirex, Tadanari Lee, 36, who scored Japan's winning goal in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup final, will look to take over the goal-scoring responsibility from Kiyoshiro Tsuboi, who netted 15 goals in 13 matches last season.
Tsuboi, who had been on loan from Japanese second-tier side Tokushima Vortis, has returned to his parent club.
Both Kim and Lee found the back of the net in pre-season and Saturday will be just the second time that they will face off against each other. The first came in August 2011, when Japan defeated South Korea 3-0 in a friendly. Then, Kim came on as a 52nd-minute substitute, while Lee featured for the entire match.
Lee told The Straits Times that he was looking forward to establishing a goal-scoring rivalry with Kim this season.
The Japanese, who has set himself a minimum target of 10 goals and 10 assists this season, said: "He (Kim) will encourage me to score more and I think that this is the same effect that I will have on him.
"Before I came here, I set a target of wanting to be top scorer as well as the player of the season. At the end of the year, the one who gets it (top scorer) will be a big factor in who wins the title."
Kim was full of praise for Lee when asked about the Japanese.
The two-time Asian Champions League winner, who has bagged more than 100 goals in 11 seasons in South Korea, said: "I am aware of what a fantastic player he is, in fact, we had played against each other on the national team stage. It's always great to be playing against fantastic players like Lee, and I am looking forward to (us) playing a part in showing fans just how exciting the (title) race in the SPL can be this season."
But unlike Lee, Kim was coy when asked about his personal targets this term.
He said: "I wouldn't want to specify a number, but I was brought here to score goals for the team, and it is exactly what I intend to do to help the team in the best way I can. Most importantly, I want to help my team reach greater heights."
Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga, who led the Japanese side to successive league titles in 2017 and 2018, has reclaimed the reins from Keiji Shigetomi for the 2022 season. The 53-year-old said that Lee and Kim would elevate the quality of both squads.
He said: "Both are big names, popular figures but on the pitch, they will give their all. It is not just about their goals but what they can bring to the (other) players. Lee's good habits and professionalism have set the benchmark for us."
While both Lee and Kim are expected to start for their teams, both sides will have to do without their starlets, who are away at the Under-23 AFF Championship. Forward Nicky Melvin Singh will miss out for Albirex while Sailors will be without attacking midfielder Saifullah Akbar. They will also miss reigning SPL Young Player of the Year Nur Adam Abdullah (injury) and new Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne, who has yet to arrive in Singapore.
Sailors head coach Kim Do-hoon, who joined the club midway through last season and led the club to the SPL title, is expecting an "exciting match for both fans and us" in the Community Shield encounter.
He said: "We look forward to a thrilling and challenging game against Albirex. We have trained and prepared hard for this season and we hope that our efforts put in during this pre-season will pay off."
Yoshinaga, meanwhile, is plotting revenge.
"Everyone is highly motivated. Last season was very disappointing for us and it will be a major motivation for us this season. It will be a competitive match and season with the Sailors again this year," he said.
In this long-running battle of the heavyweights, it remains to be seen who will deliver the first jab of 2022 by clinching the Community Shield.