SINGAPORE- If Tanjong Pagar United had their way, the season opener against Albirex Niigata on Friday (Feb 25) would not have been played.
But the beleaguered Jaguars overcame adversity to register a shock 2-0 win over Albirex in the first match of the 2022 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season at the Jurong East Stadium.
The Straits Times understands that the Jaguars had unsuccessfully applied to have the fixture postponed due to a spate of Covid-19 cases within their ranks.
The Jaguars, who finished fifth in the eight-team SPL last season, managed to name only five out of the permitted nine substitutes - two of whom were goalkeepers.
Shahrin Saberin missed out due to suspension, Shakir Hamzah was out due to a serious knee injury suffered during last year's AFF Suzuki Cup, while new signing Daniel Bennett had yet to clear the mandatory fitness test.
It is understood that first-team players Khairul Nizam, Khairul Amri and Faizal Raffi were absent after they tested positive for Covid-19 during the week.
As such, before kick-off, a procession was expected and last season's runners-up Albirex – with former Japan international Tadanari Lee in their ranks – would have been licking their lips for revenge as well.
Albirex finished two points behind champions Lion City Sailors last year, and the Japanese side's only defeat came against Tanjong Pagar.
But inside 47 seconds, it was the hamstrung Tanjong Pagar who took a shock lead. Their new signing Mirko Sugic found former Albirex forward Reo Nishiguchi just inside the box and the latter chested the ball and unleashed a volley into the back of the net.
And while Albirex were still reeling from conceding the early goal, Tanjong Pagar struck again nine minutes later.
Sugic showed some nifty footwork in the middle of the pitch before a lofted pass put Nishiguchi through on goal and he made it 2-0.
Matters worsened for an already decimated Tanjong Pagar when Rusyaidi Salime and Syukri Bashir had to be stretchered off injured. But the valiant Jaguars battled on and took all three points.
Tanjong Pagar coach Hasrin Jailani said they were only hoping that things wouldn't worsen, adding: "Of course, it wasn't an ideal preparation for us . We just had to go and train, and hope it won't get worse.
"We prepared the best we could. The win was purely tactical. With the players we have available, we had to be smart. The players were just focused on what we have and didn't think too much. What we did was to make use of counter-attacks. In terms of our defensive shape, we were excellent.
"Definitely proud of the players today. But it's still early. We lost 6-0 on the first day against Albirex last season. We need to build from this."
The result ended a proud record for Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga, who had been undefeated in his last 35 league matches since a 2-1 loss to Hougang United in July 2017. The 53-year-old Japanese tactician, who was re-installed as the club's head coach this season, has taken over a squad that have made sweeping changes. No fewer than 17 of 27 first-team members are new faces.
With the exception of 36-year-old Lee, Yoshinaga’s first XI were all below the age of 23 and he rued his young side’s loss of focus.
He said: "In the first 10 minutes, we let in goals and that made our game difficult from there. Our players lost their focus after that. We need to improve our attacking game and create more chances. The opponents played exactly like how they wanted to and we couldn't find a way past that."
Despite the ongoing Omicron surge, 728 fans turned up to witness the season opener.
One of them, Amanpreet Singh, a 25-year-old private educator, said: "As a fervent supporter of local football, I believe it is only right for me to lend my physical support to the players, coaches and officials who have worked ever so hard making this season possible amid truly trying times.
"The dedication shown by local clubs in preparing for the campaign despite the uncertainties faced is truly commendable.
"Moreover, safe-distancing measures at stadiums have been well enforced and there is little cause for concern as long as everyone plays their part and remains responsible."
In the weekend's fixtures, a revamped Balestier Khalsa host Tampines Rovers at the Toa Payoh Stadium on Saturday (Feb 26) while defending champions Sailors face a tricky opening game against Hougang on Sunday (Feb 27).
In a Singapore Premier League season that will see some prominent foreign signings take to the pitch, much of the attention has been reserved for Albirex's former Japan international Tadanari Lee, Sailors' ex-South Korea captain Kim Shin-wook and even Hougang United's Andre Moritz, who was formerly with English outfit Crystal Palace.
But if the first day's action was anything to go by, Tanjong Pagar midfielder Mirko Sugic, a relative unknown compared to the more illustrious names in the league, could be a name to remember. The 27-year-old Croat was signed on a free transfer from Croatian second-tier side NK Dubravka.
But, despite the low profile, Sugic stood out on the pitch. For a side missing several players, Sugic was immense on debut as he dominated the midfield.
He showed his aggressiveness in retrieving possession and made an impact further up the pitch - as shown with his two assists.
In a league where several Croats - namely Jure Eres, Mirko Grabovac and Stipe Plazibat - had left an indelible mark over its 27-year history, Sugic could be the latest addition on this list.