SINGAPORE - They have not been at their best all year, but Tampines Rovers' ability to eke out results in an unpredictable S-League season has seen them take a massive 11-point lead in the 12-team standings.
Victories in their next two fixtures - against Woodlands Wellington and Tanjong Pagar United - could even see Tampines crowned champions before the kick off of the last round, if other results go their way.
Tampines are determined to take some excitement out of the final round of fixtures.
Said Tampines coach Tay Peng Kee: "Our objective is to close out the title race before the last round, leave the rest of the clubs to fight for second place, and give the rest of our players in the squad a run out."
Despite that, some in the football fraternity believe that there will still be excitement aplenty.
"I'm excited to play in the new format. Several clubs are still fighting for league positions, and it'll be interesting to see who manages to cement their spot," said Tampines hitman Aleksandar Duric.
"Even if we do manage to win (the league before the last round), I don't think it will be boring. It'll be a chance for us to show that we deserve to be where we are."
After the traditional two rounds of home-andaway games, the league will split into half, with the top six sides playing one another once to decide the league winners.
The bottom six will play among themselves to try to better their league positions.
There are only four points separating secondplaced Albirex Niigata (36) and sixth-placed Woodlands (32), with two games left of the second round. Harimau Muda B, in seventh on 27 points, are the only team outside the top half of the table with any hope of breaking in.
Duric believes there will be thrills and spills in the bottom half of the competition as well, with under-performing clubs playing for pride.
Alex Weaver, coach of eight-time S-League champions Warriors FC, pointed out that there is more than that at stake. The Warriors have endured a poor season, and are in an unfamiliar eighth spot in the league.
"The players and I are working very hard to finish as high as possible, with one eye on next season. They understand that they fighting for their contracts," said Weaver. "There is all to play for."
Along with the Warriors, Brunei DPMM, Geylang International, Hougang United and the Courts Young Lions will also contest in the bottom half.
RAMS STILL DREAMING
Few took Salim Moin seriously when he said that his Woodlands Wellington side could finish in the top three in the S-League this year.
Now sixth in the 12-team league on 32 points, the Rams, who finished rock-bottom in the last three years of the league, are just four points shy of second- placed Albirex Niigata.
Only two games are left in the second round of fixtures. And at the Woodlands Stadium, belief continues to flourish.
"When I made that statement, people said that I was dreaming," Salim told The New Paper. "But I looked at the players in the team and I believed - now all the players believe too."
Woodlands have surprised many in the fraternity, beating the likes of Balestier Khalsa, Home United and even Albirex en route to their current position.
With two games to go, they are in with a real chance to fulfil Salim's dream. But first they have to ensure that they end the second round in the top half of the table.
Harimau Muda can achieve a maximum of 33 points, which means Woodlands are just two points shy of confirming their top-half status, and prolonging their hopes of a third-place finish.
"Now it's very open, there are five teams fighting to secure spots, and we are not safe yet. "It could even come down to goal difference," said Salim, whose charges face Balestier and runaway league leaders Tampines Rovers in their final two fixtures of the second round.
"But this year, I dare say that all the teams are not very consistent, and no one is taking anything for granted," said the former Singapore international. "We have tried to play attacking football, and if we do well in our next game against Tampines with this system, we will go out and attack in the final round of games as we look to finish in the top three."
Woodlands have bravely embraced a new system of football, changed their outlook and dared to dream. While Salim refuses to get ahead of himself and declare this a turning point in the history of the club, he did have a bold declaration.
"We are no more the punching bag of the other teams in the league," said Salim. "Now the boys believe that."
JAGUARS AIMING HIGH
Tanjong Pagar coach Patrick Vallee has conceded defeat in the S-League title race, but the season is far from over for him. For a club which finished second from bottom for two seasons running, finishing in the top half of the table this season would be considered a massive improvement.
But the Frenchman is hungry for more. His optimism stems from the fact that Tanjong Pagar, in fourth place, are just three points away from second-placed Albirex Niigata.
He said: "We need to reach second spot and get close to (league leaders) Tampines Rovers by mid-September," said Vallee, after his charges suffered a shock 1-0 defeat to bottom-side Courts Young Lions on Sunday.
"But I'm not worried that we'll slip down the table. The title race may be finished, but we must make sure we qualify for the top six first, then maybe we can be ambitious. "We must not forget where the club were in the last few years, and be realistic. "It was not possible to win the title this year, but if we follow in this direction, we can challenge for the title in two to three years."
The season had begun brightly for the Jaguars. With title-winning former Etoile FC coach Vallee at the helm, and a host of astute foreign and local signings, the Queenstown-based side started to punch above their weight.
For a while, they looked like genuine title challengers, until injuries and inconsistency hit the Jaguars, who are now 14 points adrift of leaders Tampines. With two games to go before the commencement of the new "half-round", there is still a chance of them dropping out of the league's top half.
Two losses in their final two second-round games - against Geylang International and Tampines - can undo all their good work, should results elsewhere don't go their way.
"I think all teams are facing tough fixtures now, and even though we are missing several players, we just need to work hard," he said.
Skipper Hafiz Osman has been out injured since the start of the campaign, while midfield hardman Sazali Salleh is also missing with a broken leg.
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