COURTS YOUNG LIONS v TAMPINES ROVERS
(Tonight, 7.30pm, StarHub TV Ch 201 & 76.25MHz)
They haven't quite regained the swagger of champions in their last three games, but Tampines Rovers have shown that they are growing into a robust, resilient unit that refuse to back down.
The recent improvement has earned Rafi Ali the right to drop the word "interim" from his job title.
The 41-year-old will lead the Stags out in tonight's Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League fixture against the Courts Young Lions as the visitors' head coach.
"We didn't win the last few games - we drew them - but they were tough games, the boys showed that they can fight, and we are still in the top three," said Tampines chairman Teo Hock Seng.
"Rafi is getting them to gel, he has been very loyal to the club, so we're giving him a shot. He is not interim any more, he's the head coach. I think that'll give him some confidence."
In his three games in charge, former Singapore international Rafi led Tampines to draws with Albirex Niigata, Warriors FC and Home United.
The Stags are fourth in the 12-team S.League on 22 points, nine behind leaders Brunei DPMM FC and five adrift of the Warriors in second spot.
"I'm happy to get the job, but nothing's really changed. What makes me happier is to see the change in players, how some of them come early for training to work on their game," said Rafi, who took over from Salim Moin after the latter failed to guide the team past the group stages of the AFC Cup.
"The boys have done well, they are fighting and taking responsibility - that's a very good sign."
The defending S.League champions have fallen a little off the pace, but Rafi remains hopeful of capturing their fourth consecutive league title.
"I want the title and, if there's any possibility to get back on track and be champions again, we will try," said Rafi, who is optimistic of guiding the Stags back to winning ways against the Young Lions and Geylang International after three tough ties.
He may have the vote of confidence from the management, but Rafi is not expecting a comfortable ride to the end of the season. In fact, he insists his position is no less precarious than it was three matches ago.
"It is good to know that I'm the head coach, but you know how it is for coaches. If you don't perform, you can be thrown out - at any time," he said.
Tampines have won only once in their last seven league outings, and it has not been a happy time for the side based at the Clementi Stadium.
"The next two games are not so difficult, we hope to start winning," said Teo. "Maybe if we don't win, Rafi will be out of a job by then."
Rafi has Jamil Ali, Shariff Samat and Shaiful Esah back in full training, but has to monitor former Singapore international striker Noh Alam Shah, who is nursing a back problem.
This article was first published on May 23, 2014.
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