Football: Signing the right characters key to Tanjong Pagar's rise in the Singapore Premier League

Tanjong Pager United's Aqhari Abdullah (left) and Faritz Hameed during training at Jurong East Stadium on April 8, 2022. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - Against Tampines Rovers on Wednesday (April 6), Tanjong Pagar United extended their record of being the only unbeaten team remaining in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) this season in the most on-brand way possible; pulling off a "mini Istanbul" and coming back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 in injury time.

It was the latest example of the team's new-found tenacity and resilience, which have transformed them from one which did not win a single game in 2020 to this year's surprise package.

Unsurprisingly, confidence is running high in the Jaguars camp as they prepare to face leaders Lion City Sailors at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday.

"Us coaches knew the players were going to do something against Tampines, we just didn't know when," said former national midfielder and head coach Hasrin Jailani. "It just so happened they left it to the very last minute. But the self-belief in ourselves was always there."

On Friday, he was named the SPL's Coach of the Month for March while midfielder Mirko Sugic took home the Player of the Month award.

Captain Faritz Hameed, who has been at Tanjong Pagar since 2020 when they returned to the SPL after a five-year absence due to financial woes, said the team's progress began last year after some prudent recruitment.

The 32-year-old is one of only five survivors from the 2020 roster. He said: "From the very start in 2020, Along (ex-Lions striker and team manager Noh Alam Shah) told me it doesn't matter who we bring in, as long as it's a good character, someone who won't disrupt the harmony in the team. They want players who are a reflection of who they are."

One such player is wingback Aqhari Abdullah, who joined this term from the Sailors where he had spent the previous five seasons.

"From the first time I stepped in the dressing room, I felt an aura, and the camaraderie within the team," he said.

"Even from the outside, I knew they had strong team spirit because whenever I played against them, because I played on the flank, I would hear the whole bench yelling at me throughout the game, trying to distract me.

"I feel like the never-say-die attitude of this team suits my personality too."

Asked if the Jaguars are out to make a statement against the Sailors, Faritz bristled and said: "How many times do we have to prove it's not a fluke?

"We were the only team to beat Albirex Niigata last season. People don't bring that up but like to talk about how we didn't win a game in 2020.

"Anyway the pressure is all on the Sailors. As players, we relish the challenge of going up against the league favourites."

Hasrin agreed with his skipper and added: "We are going to lose at some point this season. When and how, we don't know.

"But this run has given all the players a boost. They pushed all the way to the end against Tampines because they didn't want to lose that unbeaten record. And because they're fighters. They'll want to keep going as long as they can."

Tampines v Albirex Niigata (April 9)

The Stags are probably still scratching their heads wondering how they gave up that 3-0 lead over Tanjong Pagar and missed out on a third straight win.

But they can count on the form of creative midfielders Zehrudin Mehmedovic and Kyoga Nakamura, and the league's leading scorer Boris Kopitovic, against third-placed Albirex.

The White Swans have drawn their last three games despite taking the lead in each. Has speculation linking head coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga to the vacant Singapore head coach role had an effect on their players?

Geylang International v Balestier Khalsa (April 9)

Neither club have found any consistency so far this season. Balestier hope they have turned a corner with the 2-1 victory over Hougang on Tuesday while the Eagles, have gone four games without a win after upsetting the Sailors 1-0 on March 4.

Both sides will pin their hopes on their in-form strikers. Geylang's Sime Zuzul and Shuhei Hoshino of Balestier have each scored three times in their last four appearances and netted high quality goals in midweek.

Hougang United v Young Lions (April 10)

Tipped as dark horses before the season began, second-from-bottom Hougang are searching for just their second win and urgently need to shape up at the back, having shipped 17 goals in just six games and are yet to keep a clean sheet.

Cellar-dwellars Young Lions are also ailing, without a point after four games. But they have not been hopeless and have lost by just a single goal in their last three defeats. They played creditably in the most recent one, a 1-0 reverse to the Sailors on Wednesday.

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