6 Spicy Questions for the S.League: Is it advantage DPMM and Hougang in the title race?

 The 2014 S.League season resumes this week and teams will jump straight into a hectic 10-day period, with three rounds of fixtures to be played from August 20 to 30. FFT's Kenneth Tan takes you through the talking points… 

Can players adapt and stay consistent?

A young defender from one of the top clubs summed it up in one of his posts in twitter this week.

“No game for three weeks... All of a sudden, three games in one week.”

The S.League made way for the international break in early August and will resume tonight after a close to three week hiatus. Over the course of this period, all the teams could do was play friendly games to maintain their match fitness.

Ask any professional football player and he will tell you how difficult it is to replicate the competitive nature of regular league games. But it is now time for players get back into the thick of things and they will have to cope with the sudden rigours of playing three games in a week.

After such a long lay-off, it will be tough for them to get their engines going. Fatigue obviously becomes a factor, with teams with smaller playing squads expected to feel the strain more than others. 

It is also hard to stay consistent over such a packed calendar. A similarly taxing schedule in June saw the frontrunners dropping points left, right and centre. Apart from Hougang United, no teams were able to collect the full nine points on offer.

With the top six teams seperated by just six points, there could be quite a shake up in the standings when the dust settles.

Advantage DPMM and Hougang?  

Brunei DPMM and Hougang United look the likely winners out of this demanding schedule, with both teams having slightly more manageable fixtures than the rest of their competitors.

While title rivals Tampines Rovers, Albirex Niigata (Singapore), Home United and Warriors FC have crucial six-pointers against teams in the top half, the two above-mentioned teams only have fixtures against teams in the bottom half.

Steve Kean’s DPMM will take on Balestier Khalsa away at Toa Payoh and host Woodlands Wellington, before facing Tanjong Pagar United away – these are games which they are widely expected to collect all three points in.

Meanwhile Hougang is the only team in the top six who will play only two fixtures over this period – taking on Courts Young Lions at Jalan Besar before travelling to Toa Payoh to take on Balestier. They have the luxury of almost a full week’s rest before they face Harimau Muda on September 2 in a rescheduled fixture.

So will DPMM take this opportunity to pull further away from the pack? Can Hougang leapfrog the likes of Home and Warriors by taking the six points on offer for them? We shall see.

Can DPMM stave off Treble pressure?

Given the Steve Kean factor and their impressive results, many have tipped DPMM to win the local trifecta this season – League Cup, Singapore Cup and S.League.

They have already picked up the first and reached the Singapore Cup semis, but the league is proving harder to conquer than expected.

They were seven points clear at one stage and looked like running away with the title. However, infuriatingly inconsistent form meant that the once-massive lead has just been whittled down to one point. To compound matters, they have also been struggling at home – failing to pick up the three points in each of their last three games at Bandar Seri Begawan.

Could the pressure of fighting on three fronts get to them? We are not quite sure, but there was ever a time to prove your mettle, it is now.

Given a slightly easier run-in as compared to their title rivals, the Bruneians can make a statement by collecting all nine points on offer before S.League Round 2.5 kicks off.

The only worry is the output from forwards Rodrigo Tosi and Roy O’Donovan, who are not scoring as regularly in recent times. O’Donovan’s future at the club is also uncertain, given the rumoured bid from English Championship side Birmingham City.

These are interesting times at the Sultanate.

Do Balestier still stand a chance of a top six berth?

Not much attention has been given to the chase for the top six because frankly, few teams have offered much in terms of results and performances.

The gap between sixth-place Hougang and seventh-place Balestier was a mere point at one stage, but the Cheetahs embarked on a blistering run of form to leave the Tigers in their wake. Marko Kraljevic’s side now has it all to do if they are still hoping to make the top six.

Seven points adrift with three rounds left to play, they need to collect all six points in order to stand a realistic chance of leapfrogging the Cheetahs (their last game is a rescheduled game against Harimau Muda on September 6).

That task is tough, but not entirely impossible. Fair enough, they are facing title contenders DPMM and Hougang, but at least these two games will be played at home. With a decent record at Toa Payoh Stadium which only saw them lose two games all season, they have every chance of extending the valiant fight for a top six spot.

Where is the motivation for Woodlands, Geylang and Tanjong Pagar?

While Balestier are mathematically still in the run-in for the top six, teams like Woodlands, Geylang International and Tanjong Pagar can only fight for a consolation prize – the not-so-coveted seventh spot which marks ‘the best of the rest’.

After failing to achieve pre-season objectives of a top-three or top-six finish, this race seem a lot less glamorous. One can only look at the example of DPMM last season when they unexpectedly finished outside the top six.

There was a chance to ‘redeem’ their season by finishing seventh, but they ended up limped towards the finish line with just one point from their last three games – eventually finishing in eighth behind Warriors FC.

Thus it will be good to keep an eye on how these teams fare in these last few games. Nearest challengers Woodlands are seven points away from Balestier, with Geylang and Tanjong Pagar a further one point and three points behind.

Given the huge gap, these teams have got to do something fast if they still want to save their seasons.

Who will be the top scoring local lad?

It is perhaps a little disappointhing when the frontrunners for the Golden Boot award are all foreign imports. Albirex’s Kazuki Sakamoto and DPMM’s Rodrigo Tosi are joint-top with 16 goals each, with Warriors’ Nicolas Velez and Hougang’s Geison Moura in hot pursuit.

Looking down the list, it appears that no Singaporean players have even hit double figures this season.

Fazrul Nawaz is the highest-scoring local striker with eight, with Sahil Suhaimi just behind with seven for the Young Lions. Qiu Li has scored six times for Home, while the evergreen Aleksandar Duric has five.

Given the amount of games left, it would take a miracle for the Golden Boot to go to someone other than a foreign player. Having said that, it will be nice to see which local player will come close to threatening the order and possibly hit between the range of 10 to 15 goals.

Fazrul has it all to prove to national team coach Bernd Stange after recently dropped for the Juventus game, while Sahil has the opportunity to show he can pair up with Khairul Amri at the AFF Suzuki Cup.

Qiu should also possibly score a few more in Home’s pursuit for the title, so it makes an interesting unofficial fight to see who could be the top scoring local lad.

Photo Credit: Alson Ong/Football Association of Singapore