Football: Tampines Rovers looking to take the fight to SPL leaders Sailors

After a strong start to the first round of matches this term, the Tampines Rovers are second in the eight-team league. PHOTO: TAMPINES ROVERS FOOTBALL CLUB

SINGAPORE - Before this Singapore Premier League (SPL) season started, not many observers had expected Tampines Rovers to be among the title contenders following their poor end to the last campaign, when they won only one out of their last 10 matches and finished fourth.

But after a strong start to the first round of matches this term, the Stags are second in the eight-team league and have emerged as the most creditable challengers to defending champions and league leaders Lion City Sailors, who are ahead by just four points.

With the Stags being lifted by their form, goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari reflected their new-found belief by calling on his team to take the fight to the Sailors.

"We have started to believe more and more in ourselves after each match this season,'' said the 29-year-old, who was part of the Stags side that won their last piece of silverware, the 2019 Singapore Cup.

"In fact, we could have gone a step further and be in first if we did not draw some of our matches. We have done well so far but could have done so much better. There is no reason why we can't challenge (the Sailors)."

Tampines will be hoping to extend their five-match unbeaten run when they host Balestier Khalsa at Our Tampines Hub on Sunday (May 8), as the SPL resumes after a two-week break. The league will also be lifting spectator capacity limits at matches, while food and beverage can also be consumed.

With his side having lost just once and scored a league-high 21 goals after their opening seven matches, Tampines coach Gavin Lee acknowledged that it has been a "nice start" and credited it to a feel-good factor in the locker room.

Said Lee: "We have younger and fresher players who have come into the team this year and they have brought a good energy and atmosphere. The senior players have guided them well. With each game, we are realising what these players can accomplish. We have had good games and some games where we had played well in parts. The challenge now is to able to do it consistently."

One thing Lee wants his team to improve on is their defensive record. They will be looking for their first clean sheet of the season against the Tigers although their plan will be made harder by the absence of defensive duo Ryaan Sanizal and Irfan Najeeb, who are away for the SEA Games.

Balestier coach Akbar Nawas, who oversaw a 2-2 draw with the Stags in his first game in charge in February, believes his side can claim all three points this time around.

He said: "They are strong at their home ground but we must take some confidence from how we played against them earlier this season. We know their strengths and we will look to employ the best strategy we have to nullify that."

Other fixtures:

Hougang vs Lion City Sailors (Friday - May 6, 7.45pm)

The defending champions return to domestic action after a positive Asian Champions League campaign which yielded seven points from six matches - the best showing by a Singapore side at the competition. Hougang will look to pounce on any sign of fatigue from their opponents who played six matches in 15 days in Thailand.

Tanjong Pagar vs Albirex Niigata (Saturday - May 7, 5.30pm)

In the first match of the season, Tanjong Pagar pulled off a shock 2-0 victory over Albirex, sparking a six-match unbeaten run that has seen the Jaguars climb up to third. Albirex will look to exact revenge and improve on a slow start to the season, in which they have found themselves six points behind title rivals Sailors.

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