Home United's South Korean maestro Lee Kwan Woo is a shoo-in for the S-League Player of the Year award, says Ali Kasim as he rates the five possible contenders.
Name: Lee Kwan Woo
Appearance (League & Cup): 32
1 - Lee Kwan Woo
There were question marks over whether 35-year-old Lee Kwan Woo would last the entire S-League season.
After all, the last time Home United signed a former South Korea international above the age of 34 - Kim Dae Eui in 2011 - he ended up retiring and joining the backroom staff midway through the season.
But Lee, a member of the K-League's 30-30 Club - comprising players who have amassed 30 goals and assists playing in South Korea's top flight - has taken to the S-League like fish to water.
The former Suwon Bluewings star has lit up the Bishan Stadium all year long with his classy displays in central midfield.
His assists have not been accounted for, but Home's forwards would attest to the playmaker's incisive passing and astute reading of the game.
Lee, who has 13 caps for South Korea, has also chipped in with the goals. He is the club's top scorer with 12 goals - just one shy of four others vying for the Golden Boot award.
Even when he was rested, like during the last two matches, he made all the difference after coming off the bench.
Lee scored a Goal of the Year contender with a 35-metre free-kick as a substitute against Tampines a week ago.
Last Friday, he came on in the second half against Balestier and emerged as the match-winner again. The plaudits have poured in from all over; from his coach Lee Lim Saeng, his teammates, to even opposing coaches.
Earlier in the year, DPMM's Vjeran Simunic described Lee as "one of the best players ever to come to the S-League".
Balestier's uncompromising defender Paul Cunningham, who faced Lee in his previous game, perhaps summed it up best.
He said: "Lee's a class player, and it's great to play against him and have him in this league."
Indeed, even if Home fail to lift the RHB Singapore Cup on Nov 8, or clinch second place in the league, Lee might have already done enough to earn top individual honours.
2 - Jozef Kaplan
Geylang coach V Kanan made his point loud and clear during a post-match press conference in May.
He insisted that Jozef Kaplan should have won the S-League Player of the Month award for April, after it went to Home United's Lee Kwan Woo instead.
"In our 11 matches, he's been the Man of the Match 11 times... He's been the player of the first round for me," Kanan claimed.
You cannot fault Kanan for favouring the Slovakian midfielder. Whenever Geylang won this season, it was almost always because of Kaplan.
The 27-year-old has been a consistent performer for the Eagles since his arrival in January 2012, operating as the team's playmaker and primary goalscorer.
He currently leads the scorers' chart, along with three others, with 13 goals.
"When he plays, he's everywhere. I can't give him a fixed position on the pitch. He has been the heart of Geylang the last two years," Kanan said.
3 - Chang Jo Yoon
When Chang Jo Yoon failed to hold down a starting spot at Home United, and then later at Balestier Khalsa last year, many dismissed the South Korean forward as a flop.
Even when he signed for Woodlands at the start of this year, his team were sceptical.
Said Woodlands assistant coach Clement Teo: "He could only last 10 minutes during pre-season games... But, we decided to give him a chance and he has proven everyone wrong.
"He's been fantastic for us this year; all he does is work tremendously hard."
The 25-year-old former K-League player with Jeonbuk Motors has had the best season of his career. Few would argue that his strike partnership with compatriot Moon Soon Ho is the main reason that Woodlands, wooden-spoonists for the past three years, managed a top-six finish this season. He is among four players leading the top scorer's chart with 13 goals.
4 - Monsef Zerka
When the S-League's two high-profile marquee signings - Kazuyuki Toda and Martin Wagner - failed to live up to their billing, Monsef Zerka of Morocco rescued the show.
The 32-year-old's dazzling display and hat-trick during Tanjong Pagar's 6-1 thumping of Warriors FC in February made everyone take notice. And he has hardly disappointed since.
Deployed as a supporting striker, Zerka has notched 12 league goals to clinch the Jaguars a top-six finish, and helped them to a place in the Singapore Cup final.
"He's such a clever player, and probably the best finisher in the league," said teammate John Wilkinson.
"Playing for Tanjong Pagar, he doesn't get as many chances as he would playing for Tampines or Home. But he is just so clinical."
Success in the Cup or not, Tanjong Pagar will probably do everything they can to hold on to their star for the next campaign.
5 - Qiu Li
Deemed fat, lazy and past his prime, Qiu Li has however proven his critics wrong with his impressive displays for Balestier this season.
After a disappointing two years at Home United, Qiu Li has repaid the Tigers' faith in him with 11 goals in all competitions.
Perhaps just as startling, is that the China-born Singapore international has featured in 32 of his club's 36 matches this season.
Team captain Paul Cunningham attributed Qiu's resurgence to a settled atmosphere.
"For footballers, when you're happy, you play well - and Qiu has been very happy at Balestier," he explained.
"There's no question about Qiu's raw talent. But keeping fit and playing well consistently, he's done that this year.
He's been a real asset for us."
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