Albirex Niigata return to Our Tampines Hub to face table toppers Tampines Rovers following a disappointing loss to a late Geylang International goal in their opening fixture, and a drab draw against 10 men Brunei DPMM last week. The White Swans will definitely be feeling the heat going into this weekend’s fixtures. Having swept every single domestic trophy available in the past three seasons, their season got off to an unexpected start when they lost the Community Shield final to Home United FC on penalties, and it has not looked good since.
Meanwhile, Tampines, who finished runners up to Albirex in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and in fourth last year, top the table early into the 2019 season, having won all three games played, with 11 goals scored. This early into the season, The Stags already hold a commanding eight point lead over Albirex, although Albirex do have a game in hand. They will hope to extend the gap between themselves and the defending champions to 11 points with a win this weekend.
Albirex yet to find their scoring boots
In past seasons, Albirex have always been able to count on strikers such as Atsushi Kawata, who banged in 20 goals for Albirex in the 2016 season, and Tsubana Sano, who found the net 26 times in just 21 games in 2017.
However, this season, Albirex have struggled up front, with Hiroyoshi Kamata struggling up front. At just 1.65m, the pint-sized striker has struggled to make an impact this season, and it has been telling, with Albirex firing blanks in their first two games of the season.
The failure to adequately replace last season’s trophy lifting captain Wataru Murofushi is also cause for concern for Albirex. Murofushi picked up the 2018 Player of The Year award, as he dictated the tempo of games, running the midfield as Albirex went unbeaten throughout the 2018 season. He also chipped in up front, with nine goals, including some stunning strikes.
Without Murofushi, the team has lost its dynamism and lack an imposing presence in midfield. They lost their first game of the new season, a stark contrast to their unbeaten dominance of 2018, in which they only dropped six points all season. The loss of their captain and star surely has had a role to play in this drastic dip in form.
Tampines scoring for fun
On the other end of the spectrum, Tampines have seemingly been scoring goals for fun this season. They scored five against Hougang United in their opening fixture and repeated the trick with another five against Home three weeks ago.
The pace and trickery of Jordan Webb and Ryutaro Megumi, who both have the ability to play on either flank, has caused plenty of trouble for opposition defenders this season. Up front, Tampines also have plenty of options to choose from, with veteran striker Khairul Amri proving that he has still got it in him, notching the winner in the Eastern Derby last time out.
Another option The Stags have up front is Taufik Suparno, who caused all sorts of problems for the Home United defence in their 5-1 victory, winning a penalty and missing it, before making amends with a cool finish later on in the game. Taufik combined to devastating effect with Webb and Megumi, and their movement off the ball and constant changing of positions made them hard to mark and even harder to defend against.
In midfield, Tampines are also blessed with the talents of Yasir Hanapi and captain Shahdan Sulaiman, some of the country’s best operators on the ball. Combine that with the flair and raw talent of youngster Zehrudin Mehmedovic, and Tampines have a midfield trio that could easily pick apart any team in the region with their quick and incisive passing.
Coach Gavin Lee, under the guidance of the revered Kadir Yahaya, has put together a strong Tampines side that have a distinct style of play that the players appear to be committed to, and It has been backed up by results. If Tampines can continue to reach their high-performance levels of this season, and Albirex continue to stutter up front, the defending champions will definitely struggle to come up with any sort of result against the table-topping Stags.