S-League: Who can stop stags?

S-League: Who can stop stags?
National football team assistant coach V. Sundramoorthy.

They are just about everybody's pick for this year's Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League crown.

After finishing third last year and ending the season empty-handed, Tampines Rovers, who won the title from 2011 to 2013, will be only too happy to oblige.

And they mean business.

Not only have the club installed ex-LionsXII boss V Sundramoorthy at the helm, but they have also assembled a squad overflowing with established talents, including Fahrudin Mustafic, Shaiful Esah, Ridhuan Muhammad, Noh Alam Shah and Indra Sahdan.

It is why some even think that the Stags are going to stroll to the league title.

For sure, they are not short on self-belief.

Said Sundram, when he unveiled his new-look squad recently: "The boys are learning every day how football should be played the way we want to play."We have the material and players who want to listen and work towards a goal and become champions.

"We have assembled a good squad to play good, attractive football... and when we do that, the chances of winning are great.

"We want to go out there and win every tournament."

But their rivals don't think that it's going to be that straightforward.

Warriors FC coach Alex Weaver insists he is not perturbed by all the pre-season predictions.

And he said he will prove it by letting his players' feet do the talking.

"I think it's a bit unrealistic to suggest anyone will be strolling to the title," Weaver told the New Paper.

"For sure, Tampines will be strong given the quality of the players they've signed and the budget they have.

"It's fair to say they would be most people's favourites but that doesn't concern me.

"Last year, some experts even predicted we would finish 11th and we did have a slow start, but we ended up as champions.

"I'm sure a number of sides, including DPMM and Home, all have a good chance of challenging for the title."

Weaver's sentiments were echoed by Home coach Philippe Aw, who believes the title race may be even tighter than last year's.

He added that on top of quality, team unity is just as important.

Aw said: "You don't want a team strolling to the title and I doubt that will happen, especially when you look at all the teams.

"Everyone has prepared well and are setting high targets, and I think there are definitely more than a few teams in the running.

It's a long season and anything can happen; I believe the team that stay united the longest will challenge for the title.

"The club have decided to embark on a longer-term project with an emphasis on youth, but that doesn't mean we can't win anything.

"At a club like Home, you always have to aim high and we're looking to build a strong team with a good blend of youth and experience that can last the season."

One team who have been constantly aiming for the S.League title are Albirex but, despite finishing inside the top five for the last four seasons, they have yet to taste the ultimate glory.

Nonetheless, having gone for a more experienced squad in his second year in charge, coach Tatsuyuki Okuyama is confident his White Swans will once again be genuine challengers.

"Many are saying that the top teams are stronger this season, but the stronger the teams are, the better it is for the league," the Japanese said.

"This year, we have more experience and we will have better technical ability with some players coming from the J.League.

"I'm confident Albirex can match any of the strong sides."

THE TITLE CONTENDERS

S.LEAGUE

HOME UNITED

It has been 11 seasons since Home United, one of S.League's biggest clubs, were last crowned champions.

Following the five-year reign of Lee Lim Saeng, they have turned to Philippe Aw, who will now have his shot at the big time following success with the club's Prime League side.

Not much has been made about the Protectors as they have quietly gone about their business in pre-season, but the presence of players such as Noh Rahman, Juma'at Jantan, Kamel Ramdani and Sirina Camara ensure they have a good mix of steel, guile and power.

In Dane Ken Ilso, they also have an ex-Bundesliga striker who has been tipped to set the competition alight this year.

ALBIREX NIIGATA

Albirex Niigata have never been short on ambition, and have notched four consecutive top-five finishes.

But they are yet to win an S.League crown.

Given their relative youth, coach Tatsuyuki Okuyama faces a tough task in moulding the inexperienced players into title challengers.

After years of promoting young Japanese talent, the White Swans have gone for a more-experienced squad this year, which suggests that development may take a back seat.

Apart from J.League alumnus Fumiya Kogure and Yosuke Nozawa, big things are also expected of forwards Atsushi Kawata and Rion Taki, who formed a potent partnership at Hannan University.

WARRIORS FC

Coach Alex Weaver got Warriors FC to the top.

He's about to find out that staying there is harder.

Losing 2014 S.League Player of the Year Hassan Sunny was a massive blow, but Warriors still have plenty of experience in the form of Daniel Bennett, Hafiz Rahim and Shi Jiayi.

Weaver has also kept his faith in the same foreign quintet that got the job done last season.

Should Nicolas Velez and Miroslav Pejic, who combined for 33 league goals, continue their deadly form up front, Warriors have enough firepower to win it again.

BRUNEI DPMM

So near yet so far - that was DPMM's story last season.

They led the table for most of the campaign, only to be pipped to the title on the final day, following just one win in their final five matches.

Still, there were positives for coach Steve Kean, especially the emergence of Azwan Ali and Adi Said.

This year, the Bruneian club will be without talismanic forward Rodrigo Tosi, who has returned to Brazil, but they have retained Bosnian centre back Boris Raspudic and Irish utility man Joe Gamble.

Kean will be hoping former Hull City man Craig Fagan can shoulder the goal-scoring burden this season, along with fellow new import Rafael Ramazotti.

npsports@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Mar 1, 2015.
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