The challengers

Stags, Protectors and Cheetahs aim to dethrone Albirex

Since 2015, no local team have won the Singapore Premier League (previously known as the S-League), and no team have broken the Albirex Niigata monopoly since 2016.

But a trio of regular contenders and dark horses have emerged in a bid to end the Japanese team's dominance this season.

Five-time champions Tampines Rovers and two-time winners Home United have already beaten the White Swans this year, and kept the bulk of their respective squads.

With chairman Desmond Ong handing out multi-year contracts since coming on board in 2017, the Stags are benefiting from stability and continuity as their players show understanding of their roles and responsibilities on the pitch.

The young and talented - such as 19-year-old Singaporean Joel Chew and 20-year-old Serb Zehrudin Mehmedovic - are complemented by seasoned campaigners such as Canadian Jordan Webb, 30, and 41-year-old centre-back Daniel Bennett, into his 21st season.

"Having kept the bulk of players from last season definitely helps in terms of chemistry," said Webb, who has 79 goals in 208 league games over nine seasons. "I would be selling us short if I say we are not going for all the trophies. We have good atmosphere, good ideas and the energy levels are high."

His coach Gavin Lee added: "We want to be effective in and out of pre-season. If we can win and entertain with attractive football, that would be the ideal scenario."

The Protectors were the best local side last season, finishing as SPL runners-up and winning the AFC Cup Asean zonal final.

Like Tampines, they have retained 17 of 24 players, including South Korean linchpin Song Ui-young and the evergreen Shahril Ishak, who combined for 40 goals in all competitions last term.

They boast the impressive Under-23 trio of forward Adam Swandi, central midfielder Hami Syahin and central defender Taufiq Muqminin.

With their last major trophy coming in the Singapore Cup in 2013 and their last league title in 2003, Home coach Saswadimata Dasuki said it is time to end the drought.

"We want to build on our successes last season and go one better," said Saswadimata, whose side beat Albirex on penalties in the season-opening Community Shield last Saturday.

"It should be one of the most open seasons in recent years, but we won't write them off. They can only get better training full-time, without national service or school commitments (like local clubs).

Meanwhile, the dark horses in the nine-team SPL appear to be Hougang United, who added considerable firepower to a team who scored a league-low of just 22 goals in 24 games last season.

While they have never finished in the top half or won any major titles, the Cheetahs are gunning for history, with coach Clement Teo declaring that "third would be an underachievement".

Retaining forwards Iqbal Hussain, Shahfiq Ghani and Fazrul Nawaz, they signed Faris Ramli and welcomed back Croat Stipe Plazibat and captain Zulfahmi Arifin.

They initially secured the services of 2015 and 2016 top scorer Rafael Ramazotti, only for the Brazilian to go missing and sign for Mexican club FC Juarez. Instead, they have shored up their defence with South Korean centre-back Kong Ho-won.

Teo said: "Afiq Yunos was our only natural centre-back... The Ramazotti incident allowed us to sign Kong and it was a bonus we picked up Faris. He will give us a different dimension with his ability to take on players.

"With the team we assembled, we feel we need to be in the title race. Among our players, the mindset is, even a draw is underachieving."

Zulfahmi, who has returned after one season with Thailand's Chonburi, added: "Any team can win the league this season and Albirex are beatable. It depends on who are the most consistent across 24 games.

"We now have quality attackers and a great team, so we got to be more adventurous and clinical than before to fight for our targets."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2019, with the headline 'Stags, Protectors and Cheetahs aim to dethrone Albirex'. Print Edition | Subscribe