SINGAPORE - Even at just the halfway point of the Singapore Premier League (SPL) season, the title challenge has already become a two-horse race.
Lion City Sailors lead the way with 34 points from 14 games, with Albirex Niigata six points behind with a game in hand. Tanjong Pagar are third with 22 points from 14 games and Tampines are four points adrift of them having played two games fewer.
Japanese side Albirex, who are on a six-match winning streak, are most likely to topple the Sailors - they are the only team yet to lose to them this term - but the challenge ahead is tough given their rivals' squad depth.
Will the Sailors be able to steer themselves comfortably to the title when the season ends in October?
Sailors' title to lose
Former SPL player and head coach Shasi Kumar, now a commentator, said on Wednesday (July 6): "I don't think they'll be runaway winners by 10 or 15 points.
"But if they play to their potential and strength, it's Sailors' title to lose. All Albirex can do is keep winning like they have been doing."
The mid-season signing of Ilhan Fandi from the Young Lions has given the Japanese side a boost, added Shasi. The 19-year-old has already racked up three goals in four games for the White Swans.
Football Association of Singapore's head of methodology Philippe Aw expects Albirex to be even more cohesive as the season progresses, and push the Sailors all the way.
"Albirex is coming on strong as usual, because when they start the season they have many new players and they require time to gel," said Aw. "Game on game, they're getting stronger."
Best of the rest
If the Sailors do go on to clinch their second title in as many seasons, they will also earn a play-off spot to next season's Asian Champions League (ACL).
The next best local side will be the back-up for continental football next season - they will play in the second-tier AFC Cup only if the Sailors progress into the ACL competition proper.
Tanjong Pagar, the league's bottom side in 2020, have surprised many with their rise - and refusal to slip down the table - this season.
Shasi, however, said he would be surprised if they are able to maintain their position. He noted the Jaguars lost back-to-back games for the second time this season last week, and next play Albirex.
"With the run of games they have and with the squad they have, they can really suffer when they have suspensions and injuries," he said. "I'm afraid for them that the wheels could come off."
Aw said that consistency will be key in the battle for third place, which could also involve fifth-placed Hougang (16 points from 13 games).
"You want to have a consistent team playing so the understanding will be there," said Aw.
"The season is a long one and the teams that don't have depth will be in trouble when injuries and suspensions come in... Among (Tanjong Pagar, Tampines and Hougang) Hougang has the most depth but it's been a funny season for them."
Despite being tipped as darkhorses by some pundits after their third-place finish last season, Hougang have blown hot and cold this term and have failed to win back-to-back games so far.
Battle of the hotshots
The Cheetahs also have a problem in front of goal. Sahil Suhaimi and Brazilian midfielder Andre Moritz are their joint top-scorers in the SPL, with four goals apiece.
Tampines, meanwhile, have the league's top scorer Boris Kopitovic (15) leading the line, while Tanjong Pagar's Reo Nishiguchi has 12.
Montenegrin striker Kopitovic is Aw's pick for the Golden Boot.
"Boris stands a good chance because he takes penalties and free-kicks for Tampines, and is the focal point for their attack," noted Aw.
"I think he'll continue to have a consistent season. He's been in Singapore a few seasons now (since 2020), is settled here, and Tampines don't change their team much too."
Albirex poacher Kodai Tanaka (14), however, is Shasi's pick to win the top scorer's award despite Aw's suggestion that his output may reduce with Ilhan's presence.
"Because of the run Albirex are on, and because they're always creating chances," explained Shasi. "Tanaka will always be the one sniffing out the goals for them."