6 Spicy Questions for the S.League: Can Rafi finally taste victory as Stags coach?

The S.League season continues this week with Round 12 action. Once again, FFT Singapore’s Kenneth Tan tries to pick out the key pointers from each fixture...

Can improving White Swans stop the DPMM express?  

Brunei DPMM vs Albirex Niigata (Singapore), Wednesday 14 May

This is beginning to sound like a broken record, but not many teams survive their visits to the Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei.

This season we have seen four teams slink home with their tails between their legs after heavy defeats, one team leave with a respectable two-goal loss while another somehow escaped with a fortuitous victory.

Six straight wins and seven points clear at the top – DPMM are clearly the team to beat this season. The other title pretenders can ill afford to lose further ground including their opponents on Wednesday, Albirex.

The White Swans are beginning to find their feet in recent weeks with two wins and one draw in their last three games. Scoring four goals each in the respective triumphs over Home United and Geylang International have also put paid to claims that they do not put the ball into the net often enough.

With key defender Boris Raspudic out for the hosts, Tatsuyuki Okuyama’s charges will be hopeful of chances in the attacking third. A shock win will see them go second for 48 hours at least and that should be motivation enough for them to fight tonight.

Park back = Tigers win?

Balestier Khalsa vs Courts Young Lions, Thursday 15 May

Finally the magical Park Kang-Jin is back.

Or at least that is what his coach Marko Kraljevic thinks, as he has compared the Korean’s influence on the team to that of Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil and Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho.

Over the past couple of months, the Croatian has been lamenting his playmaker's absence as causing the lack of verve in the attacking third for his side. Thus it must be been a huge relief for him to see Park putting in a handy 30-odd minutes last Friday against Hougang United.

We have seen how a fully fit Park can destroy the opposition and their opponents on Thursday night, Courts Young Lions, could testify to that. Inspired by their foreign import, the Tigers put up an attacking masterclass and destroyed the Under-23 outfit 4-0 in their previous meeting.

It might not be that easy this time round with Aide Iskandar’s boys hitting the right notes in their last few matches – a highlight in particular their new-found resilience in defence. Meanwhile in attack, they have only failed to score in two matches thus far.

They should relish their chances against a Tiger defence which is missing the services of captain Paul Cunningham. The New Zealander is out for at least 10 weeks due to an ACL injury.

Can the Cheetahs cope with being ‘favorites’?  

Woodlands Wellington vs Hougang United, Thursday 15 May

Hougang are comfortable being underdogs, admitted coach Amin Nasir at the post-match press conference after last week’s victory over the Tigers.

That is their strength and also possibly their weakness. They are capable of halting the top guns in the league such as Albirex Niigata (Singapore), Home United and Tampines Rovers, but at the same time they are finding the going tough against the so-called lesser lights.

A 3-2 loss to Geylang International, a stunning 3-0 setback to Young Lions and a scrappy 4-3 win over Harima Muda are examples how they struggle on occasions when the bookmakers tipped them as the ‘favorites’.

Therefore, Thursday’s encounter against Woodlands could prove to be a potential banana skin for the Cheetahs.

Despite struggling to get wins this year, the Rams are still a resilient side who are tough to beat on their day. With evergreen goalkeeper Yazid Yasin in good form and the likes of Atsushi Shimono and Chang Jo-Yoon in attack, Darren Stewart’s charges will not go down easily.

The Cheetahs have it all to do if they want to stay comfortable in the top half.

Will the young Tigers taste the wrath of the Jaguars?  

Tanjong Pagar United vs Harimau Muda, Friday 16 May

No one expected such a rough start to Tanjong Pagar’s season, including players and coaches alike.

It was supposed to be a year in which they started to consolidate and push themselves into the top three, but instead they have found themselves struggling in tenth position at the end of the first round of fixtures.

You can name many reasons for their lacklustre form thus far – injuries to key players like Ahmad Latiff and Kamel Ramdani, an out-of-sorts Monsef Zerka, a lack of capable back-up players.. the list goes on, but there is little point focusing on these negatives.  

At least Latiff and Ramdani are now back, so there are fewer excuses for the Jaguars to keep under-performing. A six-match winless streak will surely eat into the confidence levels of any side.

No offense to Harimau Muda, but Friday night’s televised clash may well be the Jaguars’ best chance to snap their recent bad run. If Patrick Vallee can get his charges to put in the same level of performance two weeks ago against Tampines, they should be able to lift the gloom surrounding their side.

Can the Warriors get unlikely title bid back on track?

Geylang International vs Warriors FC, Friday 16 May

Things have certainly changed at Choa Chu Kang Stadium.

While a draw away at the home of the defending champions could have been viewed as a handy point last season, the Warriors FC class of 2014 came away from Clementi Stadium last week feeling like they had just lost the game.

The Warriors are a truly rejuvenated side this season and not many expected them to finish in the top two at the end of the first round of fixtures. But there they are and they will now have to cope with the pressure of being in the title race.

The past couple of weeks (a heavy 4-1 loss to Home and that 3-all draw against Tampines) may have been a slight setback, but there you have to admire the manner in which Alex Weaver’s charges started the season.

Now seven points (possibly 10 points before kickoff) adrift of leaders DPMM, the onus is on them to keep up the pace as well as replicate those swashbuckling performances in the second round.

Against a Geylang side which had not kept in a clean sheet in their past five matches, Miroslav Pejic and company have an excellent opportunity to hit the goal trail and get back to winning ways.

Can the Stags arrest their alarming run of form?  

Home United vs Tampines Rovers, Sunday 18 May

Close but no cigar.

Tampines could have gotten a win against Warriors FC last week but had to rely on a last-gasp equalizer to rescue a much-needed point.

Under interim coach Rafi Ali, the performances in their last couple of games (a 1-all draw with Albirex before that draw against Tampines) have been admirable. However that is simply not enough when it comes to the defending champions.

One win in their last eight games in all competitions does not make for easy reading for Tampines fans and they could possibly be ten points off the pace come Sunday night.

Rafi’s charges have to start racking up points or risk DPMM running away with their crown. It will not be easy to keep out a fearsome Home attack consisting of the likes of Lee Kwan-Woo, Bruno Castanheira and Qiu Li, but they have shown that it can be done as witnessed in their opening-day win against the same opposition at Jalan Besar Stadium.

The Young Lions also did that last week, further strengthening the case that Lee Lim-Saeng’s side cannot always rely on their attacking talents. If Miljan Mrdakovic and company can keep up their recent improvement, there will be no reason why they can’t topple the Protectors.