6 Spicy Questions for the S.League: Can Hougang rediscover their early season form?

 Round 2.5 of the 2014 S.League season kicks off this week, with four fixtures to be played over the next three days. FourFourTwo’s Kenneth Tan goes through the talking points from Week 23…    

Have the Stags learnt from previous lessons?

Fresh from a three-week break, Tampines Rovers will return to league action wanting to right the wrongs during the closing stages of Round 2. A truly nightmarish week saw them picking up only one point in three matches.

That solitary point came via a 2-2 draw against Albirex Niigata (Singapore), a result which was sandwiched between disappointing losses to Tanjong Pagar United and Warriors FC. Even that result itself was a disappointment as they were in cruise control until the final 15 minutes or so at Jurong East.

Fixtures (Week 23)

Wednesday 17 September

  • Tampines Rovers vs Albirex Niigata (Singapore)
  • Brunei DPMM vs Home United

Thursday 18 September

  • Woodlands Wellington vs Hougang United

Friday 19 September

  • Geylang International vs Tanjong Pagar United 

At 2-0 up, they somehow contrived to throw that advantage away with Kazuki Sakamoto bagging a clinical brace. Hosting the same opponents again this Wednesday, they have the chance to show that they have learnt from that chastening experience.

It will be not be easy for them though, with the White Swans proving to be some sort of a bogey team over the past couple of seasons. In their past seven encounters, the Stags have only beaten them once in regulation time.

Currently seven points off the pace with an inferior goal difference, this is a must-win game for Rafi’s men if they want to pick up their fourth successive league title.

Do the White Swans have the temperament to keep pace in the title race?

It has been a strange season for Albirex Niigata (Singapore). They have never truly strung together a series of wins or gone on any consistent streak of form, but somehow or rather, they are still very much in the thick of things when it comes to the title race.

Fans of the Japanese side can be forgiven for not knowing which side will turn up on the night, be it the one that conceded four goals in 45 minutes against Home United or the one that plundered in seven goals against Woodlands Wellington.

It is understandable why such a young team, with mostly under-23 players, might tend to be inconsistent. However given the excellent position which they are in now (just six points behind Brunei DPMM), it would not hurt to give their best shot at a possible title bid.

With the experienced Norihiro Kawakami and Shohei Hotta at the back complementing the goalscoring talents of Sakamoto up front, they have a well-balanced starting eleven which can compete against the league’s best teams. The only question is perhaps how much they want it.

We shall see after they face off against Tampines.

Will DPMM land the first blow against the Protectors?

The league clash between Brunei DPMM and Home United on Wednesday will kick-start a trilogy of matches between the two teams. After this clash at Bandar Seri Begawan, both sides will lock horns again next week in a two-legged semi-final tie which will decide which team keeps their Singapore Cup hopes alive.

This is therefore the perfect chance for either side to gain a psychological advantage going into the Cup clash. While league leaders DPMM still have the unique chance to win a local treble (the S.League, Singapore Cup and the League Cup) this season, Home’s league season potentially hinges on this game.

With eight points separating the two sides, a loss for the Protectors could literally spell the death knell for their title hopes. On the other hand, DPMM will stay top regardless of this result, thus it seems like there is lesser pressure in the Wasps’ camp.

Given the strong manner in which they ended Round 2, they are no doubt the favourites to win this game. What eventuates in this game might just set the stage for a thrilling Singapore Cup semi-final.

Will Qiu Li return to inspire the Protectors?

Opinions have been divided about him, but Qiu Li is arguably one of the best attackers in the S.League. His absence on the pitch has coincided with Home United’s dip in form.

After coming off the bench against Albirex, the 32-year-old was oddly left out of the match-day squad for the next two matches against Warriors FC and the Courts Young Lions, where they collected only one point from a possible six.

Not much is known about the exact reason why he did not feature, but it is clear that that the Protectors need him back now to lift their flailing title hopes. This game against DPMM may well be the best chance for Lee Lim Saeng to reintegrate him back into the team.

The last time Home United played at Bandar Seri Begawan, the 33-year-old’s guile and composure in front of goal proved too difficult for the Wasps’ defence to handle as he plundered in two goals to inspire them to a 3-2 victory.

Can Qiu do it all over again, or will he even start at all? We shall see.

Can the Cheetahs find their groove again?

Hougang United went from dark horses for the title to finishing inside the bottom six within a matter of weeks. Indeed it was a cruel way to end Round 2, after showing some spectacular form throughout the season.

However, they only had themselves to blame for losing concentration and belief at the most important juncture of the season. Seven points ahead of Balestier Khalsa with three games to go, they somehow suffered consecutive losses against Young Lions, Balestier and Harimau Muda to concede the top-six spot which they held for the majority of 2014.

It will now be interesting to see how they recover from this crushing blow and find motivation playing within the bottom six. Their record against the top six teams has been excellent to say the least and it was their inability to collect enough points against the lower-ranked sides which eventually proved to be their downfall.

With a two-week break since that mighty collapse, there should have been ample time for Amin Nasir’s men to reflect on the lessons learnt and reinvigorate themselves for this round 2.5. This game will a good test of their ‘bouncebackability’ as they aim to achieve their highest-ever finish in S.League history.

Can the Jaguars break the Bedok curse?

They have tried and tried, but never succeeded in doing it before. Since the S.League’s inception in 1996, Tanjong Pagar United have never beaten Geylang International at Bedok Stadium.

This is a stunning yet unwanted statistic for the Jaguars as they go into this Friday’s clash against the same opponents. Given the ever-changing nature of squads each year, it is not fair to attribute this winless streak to any mental block on the players’ part.

The class of 2014 came close to bucking this trend back in May when they led for the majority of the second half after Ruzaini Zainal’s superb volley. However they were denied the three points seven minutes from time when Geylang hitman Leonel Felice leaped the highest to nod past a stranded Aurlien Herisson.

Fast forward four months, this is yet another opportunity for them to change history. Apart from relying on luck, what Patrick Vallee’s men can do is perhaps contain Felice who has scored thrice in two meetings against them so far.

Image Credit: Abel Khoo/Football Association of Singapore