After a slow start to his Singapore Premier League (SPL) career, Diego Lopes hopes to be the difference maker in the biggest game of the season so far when his big-spending Lion City Sailors take on defending champions Albirex Niigata today.
The Sailors, who paid a record $2.9 million to Portuguese top-flight club Rio Ave for the Brazilian midfielder, also recruited Lions forward Faris Ramli from Malaysian Super League side Terengganu in the off-season and are seen as title favourites.
But they are already playing catch-up to Albirex and sit third, three points behind the Japanese leaders (10) and two adrift of Hougang United.
Lopes, 26, was not match fit for the Sailors' opening game and came on as a second-half substitute in the next two matches. He started their last game on Saturday and notched an assist in the 3-1 win against the Young Lions.
He said through a translator: "Every game I go into, my intention is to make a difference. I have seen a little bit of Albirex. They are a very good team, (but) we are also a good team, and our intention is to go out, do our best and get all three points."
Rival teams have so far adopted a similar physical approach to try and stifle Lopes but he was unfazed by such tactics. He said: "It is a part of football. How to overcome that? I will just get up and move on. I will always take on the opposition and I won't back down from tackles."
He managed 16 goals in 131 appearances across two stints for Rio Ave and hopes to open his account in Singapore.
He said: "I do want to score a goal and hope it happens on Wednesday but that's not my (only) job. I have to think of my teammates too. If I don't have a chance to score a goal then I need to create for others."
Albirex have started this campaign strongly, with three wins and a draw. They won both encounters against the Sailors 3-2 last term but this year, it is their defence that has impressed.
The White Swans have conceded just one goal and have kept three straight clean sheets.
Despite the presence of Lopes, Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi is wary of other threats at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
He said: "It will be a tough match as Sailors have many good players and they are definitely stronger than last year with many quality additions.
"Diego is undoubtedly a star player. But Sailors have many other star players too like last year's Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year, Gabriel (Quak) and Saifullah (Akbar); and also Faris, Song Ui-young, Stipe (Plazibat), Adam Swandi...
"I could not name them all. So we have to defend all of them."
SAILORS V ALBIREX
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