After an opening round in which experience seemed to trump enthusiasm, us FourFourTwo Singapore writers put our heads together and came up with an S.League Team of the Week.
It wasn’t a vintage week for goalkeepers, but two stood out in particular in their teams' solid 1-0 wins. Hyrulnizam Juma'at kept a clean sheet on debut for Tampines, drawing attention with interceptions and blocks from the marauding Home United forwards. Of particular note was a full-stretch dive and parry from Lee Kwan-Woo's direct free-kick early on. A goal would have changed the game as Home pushed forward in the opening stages, but Hyrulnizam definitely kept the Stags in it.
Azman Ilham, who was forever the bridesmaid last season, seized a rare opportunity this time round with incumbent Wardun Yusoff suspended and gave a good account of himself. Two fine saves, excellent tactical awareness and clever distribution will give his DPMM coach, Steve Kean, food for thought ahead of the next match when Wardun is available again. Azman's last minute save, part-parry and part-good control possibly saved his side two of their three valuable points.
But Hyrulnizam ultimately gets the nod for dealing with a very potent Protectors attack and helping his team to win the Charity Shield.
In defence, one man was imperious and surely few would argue Fahrudin Mustafic deserved his place in our First Round team at the heart of the Tampines defence. A virtual brick wall, he was a colossus all night and repelled everything Home United threw at him. Tampines' shaky pre-season defence looked anything but with Mustafic in the backline, as he rendered Home United's livewire Bruno Castanheira anonymous all evening.
Lining up against him on the night, Sirina Camara who doubled as both wide and central defender was calm and collected, always aware of the positions occupied by both his teammates and his opponents. Moved on to the left wing after Qiu Li's dismissal as United tried to chase the game, the Frenchman didn't look out of place and showed off some nifty footwork as he repeatedly got past his man.
Tanjong Pagar's Anthony Aymard also had a superb start to the new season over at Pasir Gudang against Harimau Muda. The French centre-back made several crucial interceptions to thwart potential attacking threats from the wings and provide assurance to makeshift left-back Asraf Rashid, whose unfamiliarity in his role left him exposed against the Harimau wingers. Without the 26-year-old's presence at the back, the Jaguars could have been staring at an opening defeat, instead of a precious 2-1 win.
Akhir Bahari showed up well too in the same match, alternating on both flanks and giving Tanjong Pagar plenty of problems. Making his professional debut for Harimau Muda B, the 20-year-old was a revelation out wide. Adept on either wing, he was unafraid to pose questions to the Tanjong Pagar defence with his dribbles at both opposing full-backs and daring them to foul him in dangerous positions. One of his runs saw him cut in from the right and outsmart two Jaguars defenders before unleashing a low shot beyond Aurelien Herisson's fingertips for the opening goal.
Another impressive debutant was none other than Hougang United's Shunsuke Nakatake as he shone against Woodlands Wellington. Small in size, big in heart and plying his trade in amateur football just last season, the 23-year-old Japanese midfielder showed no signs of being overawed with the step up in quality. Sitting just in front of his backline, he showed his class with a number of key interceptions and constantly kept the ball moving. Apart from keeping his compatriot Atsushi Shimono quiet, he also contributed in attack with a superb curling cross which caught the Rams’ defence all at sea for Hougang's second goal.
Koki Akasaka was another central midfielder who caught our eye, shaking things up for Albirex Niigata in their opening match of the season. The Japanese player made a nuisance of himself in the middle of the park, trying hard to get things going for his otherwise ill-directed team. A lively presence throughout, his strong tackling and constant back-tracking did not go unnoticed as he demonstrated loads of energy in attempting to drive his team forwards at every opportunity. He did all he could to spark his relatively new side into action, but the White Swans just fell short.
Park Kang Jin as usual pulled all the strings in the Balestier Khalsa's midfield and was at his very best once again, though admittedly against a toothless Courts Young Lions outfit. The midfield general held sway throughout, setting up two goals and scoring a sublime free-kick to round things off nicely in the second-half. The Tigers have lofty ambitions this season and Park will be vital if they are to capitalise on this fine start.
One player who came close to earning a central midfield spot in our side was Rosmin Kamis, who unfortunately faced some stiff competition this week. The DPMM captain was an ever-dependable supplier of passes and destroyer of attacks in central midfield. He looked in fine nick against Albirex, a good sign for the visitors in their first term under Englishman Steve Kean.
Irfan Zakaria showed up really well in central midfield at Pasir Gudang on Sunday evening, just missing out on a place as well. Making his senior debut, the newly-promoted 'C' squad player showed few signs of nerves as he bossed the middle of the park alongside Afiq Faizal. He not only covered every blade of the Pasir Gudang turf to protect his back four, he also distributed passes to his attacking colleagues to facilitate the quick transition from defence to attack.
Speedy Hafiz Rahim proved a not-so-surprise packet for Warriors FC, shining as an attacking wide-man against dogged opponents and one-time employers, Geylang International. Hafiz struck the winner as his Warriors’ side closed out a 2-1 home win, pleasing coach Alex Weaver immensely. The move from Home United should allow the 30-year-old a chance to work his way back into national team calculations once more.
Fazli Jaafar also went close to making our team in Round 1, edged out narrowly by Akhir and Hafiz. One goal and one assist on the first day - what more could you ask for? The Hougang United veteran did everything demanded of him on the flanks, constantly getting down the left and whipping in dangerous crosses. After one of those led to Hougang's first goal, he capped his night off with a nicely-taken side-footed volley inside Yazid Yasin's near-post from Nakatake's centre. Fazli was unlucky to miss out this week.
Up front, Miljan Mrdakovic may not have had many chances during his Tampines' narrow Charity Shield win, but he looked menacing and gave Home United plenty to think about all evening. The Tampines' striker came up with the goods in the end, holding off his marker and making a yard of space for himself to fire home the only goal of the game. That's two goals in two games for the star man, and if he keeps it up, it'll take some of the pressure off the evergreen Aleksandar Duric.
The Balestier - Young Lions game produced another standout player in a somewhat one-sided game, as Kim Min Ho slotted into the Tigers' lineup as an auxiliary striker behind marquee man Goran Ljubojevic. The South Korean forward showed no signs of shirking his tasks despite close attention from the rugged CYL defenders as he rode numerous challenges on the night, scoring one excellent goal and beind denied more by defensive blocks.
It's Rodrigo Tosi who picks up the last Team of the Week nomination though, as he fronts up next to Mrdakovic in our selection. The DPMM forward showed clearly why he was the only foreigner retained by the Bruneian club this season, proving instrumental for the visitors as he both earned and converted the winning penalty in their 1-0 victory over Albirex. He might still look a little on the burly side after a long lay-off, but keep in mind he was carrying similar weight last season. His previous S-League experience stood him in good stead, as he probed and pushed and didn't stint on his defensive duties, even as often as he went forward. His all-round qualities earned him the man-of-the-match gong and his goal was just reward. Once he brings his new team-mates into the play more we should expect him to again contribute strongly.