S-League 2012 Preview

ESPNSTAR.com takes a look at how the teams will fare ahead of the brand-new 2012 Great Eastern-YEO's S-League campaign.

Tampines Rovers

Albirex Niigata 

As always, once an S-League season comes to a close, Japanese outfit Albirex Niigata's (Singapore) squad will be awash with departures.

It's no different this season, with the White Swans having offloaded 14 of their players from last season's 22-man squad. Custodian Yoshito Matsushita and top scorer Shotaro Ihata are amongst the key departures for Koichi Sugiyama's side.

Nevertheless, skipper Norihiro Kawakami and midfielders Keisuke Matsui and Atsushi Shimono have been retained and are joined by 10 new players who have been drafted in from the Japan Soccer College.

Albirex will once again possess a dynamic and competitive squad. The most important capture, however, is the signature of tactician Sugiyama, after last season's S-League Coach of the Year agreed to stay on with the White Swans for another two years.

Known for his attacking ideals, Sugiyama has crafted a squad capable of playing high-octane football throughout ninety minutes and Albirex will look to build on their fourth placed finish last season, their best ever league performance.

Expect the White Swans to pose serious questions to the rest of the league's top dogs and a place in the top four is perhaps the minimum requirement.

Prediction: 6th

Balestier Khalsa

After a rather tepid tenth placed finish last campaign, Balestier Khalsa have parted ways with coach Salim Moin and the appointment of Gombak United chief and former Tigers captain Darren Stewart is generating a new buzz around the Tigers den.

The affable Australian, who guided the Bulls to a respectable sixth spot last season, has been quick to lay the foundations of his new tenure at the Tigers by offloading the likes of custodian Ahmadulhaq Che Omar, defender Anaz Hadee, veteran Ishak Zainol, midfielder K Vikraman, Nurhilmi Jasni and K Sathiaraj.

In fact, only four players of Balestier's 2011 squad have survived the chop ahead of the new campaign. It is perhaps no surprise that Stewart has gone back to his former side to sign several players with Hamqaamal Shah, Ruhaizad Ismail, Zulkiffli Hassim and Tengku Mushadad, Jaslee Hatta and Kang-Jin Park all joining Balestier.

The additions of Hamqaamal and Jaslee will add some tenacity and pace to the Tigers' defence while Tengku, Kang-Jin and Goran Subara will be able to add some guile and craft to a Balestier midfield that struggled for creativity throughout last season.

Syed Thaha, an acquisition from Geylang United is another useful addition to the Tigers' set-up and the midfielder has impressed for the Eagles in recent seasons with his wing play and goals.

Stewart has attempted to inject some flair in the attacking third and defensive steel at the back and judging by his signings thus far, Balestier might just ruffle some feathers during the new campaign.

Prediction: 9th

Courts Young Lions

The Young Lions were perhaps the most affected by the formation of the LIONSXII to play in the Malaysia Super League, losing no less than 14 players including captain Hariss Harun and first-teamers Izwan Mahbud, Safuwan Baharudin, Irwan Shah and Fazli Ayob.

In the wake of these departures, coach Robin Chitrakar has sought to compensate for his losses by bringing in a mix of young prospects from the national Under-18 side, as well as a quartet of talented foreigners. French striker Jonathan Toto is expected to lead the Young Lions attack this season alongside Danish import Benjamin Kristofferson Lee, while Toto's compatriot Sirina Camara will be looking to make the left-back spot his own.

However, the one player who could make the most impact for Chitrakar's men this season could be new captain Hafiz Abu Sujad, who will be looking to influence proceedings from the middle of the park. The pint-sized maestro never holds when he's on the pitch, and the Young Lions will need plenty of grit from him if they are to have a successful season.

Still, given the club's status as a breeding ground of the nation's top youngsters, where they finish on the table has never been a main concern.

What will be demanded from Chitrakar and his youthful charges is development, but following the pre-season exodus, it's hard to see them causing too many upsets in 2012.

Prediction: 10th

DPMM FC

Despite a two-year absence, there is a growing sense of belief that the returning DPMM FC will pick up where they left off in 2009, when they were banished from the S.League after FIFA imposed a two-year ban on the club for government interference in the Brunei Football Association.

Back then, they had just emerged triumphant in the Singapore League Cup, and were challenging for the league title before their untimely expulsion. With the ban now lifted, the Bruneian outfit are back in the S.League, and are looking to make an impact once again.

Croatian coach Vjeran Simunic returns after a stint with Ho Chi Minh City FC, along with star midfielder Ivan Jerkovic, who spent the last two seasons with SAFFC, while the club have brought in Brazilian duo Rodrigo Gral and Tales dos Santos.

However, the one area which DPMM could really hurt rival sides is their home ground advantage, where visiting teams will do well to keep their cool in the 30,000 capacity Jerudong Park Mini Stadium, which is an imposing arena even when half-full.

"[Finishing in the] top five seems to be a realistic target," team manager Pg Waslimin PSJ Pg Hj Abd Momin said back in January, revealing DPMM's goals for the season. Considering it's been two years since they've played professional football, that does seem a realistic aim for the campaign.

But if they are able to click together faster than expected, don't be surprised if they repeat their 2009 heroics and challenge for top honours.

Prediction: 5th

Geylang United

Having laboured to a disappointing eighth spot in last season's S-League, the Eagles will be expected to regain their status as one of the league's leading lights this campaign.

However, judging by their transfer activity during pre-season, the Geylang faithful may well have cause for concern. Several key stalwarts and talented youngsters have been offloaded by the club after last season's inconsistent displays.

However, releasing the likes of Daniel Hammond, Syed Thaha, Adrian Dhanaraj, Hafiz Rahim, Vasile Ghindaru, Nakano Yuta, Kim Jae Hong and Hee-Bong Jung - among others - could have severe repercussions as coach Mike Wong will have to allow a substantial amount of time for his new recruits to bed in.

Moreover, having lost midfielder Yasir Hanapi and defender Sevki Sha'ban to the LIONSXII, Wong will have to cope with the departure of the versatile duo.

The underwhelming signings of players such as Shahril Alias, Ishak Zainol, Jalal, Ridhuan Barudin coupled with the arrival of foreigners Jozef Kaplán, Rhema Obed and Oliver Nicholas point to a season of transition for the Eastern outfit.

Canny Eagles gaffer Wong. though, is expected to start build his side from the back as he has always done. In fact, both Obed and Nicholas played for the Gunners' U-16 side in the 2007/ 2008 season.

Having offloaded nearly the spine of last season's squad, the Eagles could well be facing a long and hard season.

Prediction: 13th

Gombak United

Known for their continuity and stability when delving into their post-season transfer activities, Gombak United have thrown caution to the wind ahead of the new campaign by making several sweeping changes in both the coaching and playing roster.

Australian gaffer Darren Stewart has departed for Balestier Khalsa after three years at the Bulls' helm and the unheralded K Balagumaran takes over the vacant coaching post.

In fact, the Gombak hotseat is Balagumaran's maiden senior coaching role with the new man having spent most of his career coaching at youth level, most recently with the Centre of Excellence at Tampines Rovers. Gombak have also retained just six of their senior players from last season's 19-man squad with the likes of Obadin Aikhena, Walid Lounis, and Ismail Yunos all staying for the new campaign.

However, the Bulls have been hit by a number of departures with former chief Stewart having raided his old side for players such as Tengku Mushadad, Jaslee Hatta, Hamqaamal Shah, Ruhaizad Ismail and Kang-Jin Park.

Nevertheless, the Jurong-based side have moved to snag the likes of Mustaqim Manzur from SAFFC and K Vikraman from Balestier respectively while Hafiz Rahim and Adrian Dhanaraj arrive from Geylang United.

With Bulls chairman John Yap having openly stated his desire to see his charges play an attacking brand of football, Gombak coach Balagumaran has the players at his disposal to craft an attacking style of football and a mid-table finish looks a real possibility come the end of the campaign.

Prediction: 8th

Harimau Muda

The Malaysian representative side have already played down expectations ahead of their S.League debut, and insist the focus is to develop the national Under-23 squad ahead of upcoming international tournaments.

However, the apparent lack of ambition from Harimau Muda could just work in their favour, as coach Ong Kim Swee actually has a talented squad at his disposal, and the other S.League teams would do well to be wary of them.

Ong, a former Malaysia international himself, has been involved in the national team setup since 2009, and is said to command great respect from his charges.

Just last November, he led Malaysia to a successful defence of their SEA Games title, and despite the average age of his squad being just 19, it won't be surprising to see Harimau Muda match it with the league's big boys.

Keep an eye out for 21-year-old centre-back Fadhli Shas, who has already been capped 12 times by Malaysia, and possesses a good technical ability and an excellent reading of the game.

Midfielder Nazmi Faiz is also regarded as one of the brightest talents to emerge from the country in recent years, and has been recently linked with a move to Welsh side Cardiff City.

Prediction: 4th

Home United

Runners-up in the league last season and victorious in the FA Cup, the Protectors are once again expected to be right there at the top this term.

In Frederic Mendy, Qiu Li and new signing Shotaro Ihata, Home have one of the most fearsome strike forces in the land, while captain Shi Jiayi and new signing John Wilkinson will provide plenty of creativity in the midfield.

However, it is at the back where Home look most vulnerable, something club chairman Koh Siong Ling admits the club did look to fix over the pre-season.

"The key area highlighted by the coach [Lee Lim-saeng] is our defence," Koh said. "But the coach himself was a world-class defender so I have no worries he will get the job done."

On paper, Home still boast one of the best squads in the league, but with no less than nine new signings, whether the team can gel quickly when the season starts remains to be seen.

Already there were worrying signs last Sunday as they lost 2-0 to Tampines Rovers in the Great Eastern Charity Shield at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

The Protectors will still challenge for the title, make no mistake about that. But whether or not they can go one better this year remains the bigger question.

Prediction: 2nd

Hougang United

Despite enjoying their best ever league finish last season (seventh), Hougang United have dispensed with the services of former national skipper Aide Iskandar as the Cheetahs coach and playmaker Carlos Alberto Delgado, skipper Shariff Abdul Samat and vice captain Fadhil Salim are among a host of players to have been offloaded by the club.

Chairman Bill Ng was quoted as saying by The New Paper that the club's unsavoury incidents involving a pre-match brawl against Etoile last May coupled with the dismissal of Shariff which resulted in him hurtling a chair through the dugout as key reasons for his decision to fully revamp the squad.

In Aide's absence, former SAFFC midfielder and ex-Woodlands coach Nenad Bacina has been drafted into the Cheetahs hotseat.

The Croat, who turned down a better last-ditch offer from Omani outfit Al-Nahda as he had given Ng his word, will have his work cut out to replicate Hougang's sensational seventh placed finish last campaign.

Only ten players from last season's squad have been retained and nine new faces have been brought in, including Croatians Ante Barac and Stanislav Vidakovic.

Mercurial forward Jordan Webb, who plundered in 14 goals last season, has been kept on by the Cheetahs and Bacina will once again be relying on the dynamic Canadian to bang in the goals for Hougang. Having delighted the Cheetahs' faithful with their flair and flamboyance last campaign, Bacina will face a stern test of his managerial credentials in replicating last season's exploits.

However, having remained unbeaten throughout pre-season, winning five games and drawing once against SAFFC, Hougang will be aiming to build on last season's steady showings.

However, the departure of key personnel and stalwarts could mean the Cheetahs could struggle to finish in the upper reaches of the league table come the end of the season.

Prediction: 7th

SAFFC

The eight-time champions had a season to forget last year as they finished third in the league, 12 points behind champions Tampines.

However, given the resources available to the Warriors, they will be expected to once again challenge for top honours this year.

Having identified inconsistency as the reason for their failure to win the league in the last two seasons, coach Richard Bok has looked to do things differently this time around by keeping the nucleus of his side.

There are only six new arrivals at the Chao Chu Kang Stadium for 2012 and none of them are guaranteed to be in Bok's starting XI when they kick off against Albirex Niigata.

One player who will definitely be there, though, is Croatian marksman Mislav Karoglan, who bagged 33 goals last season in a brilliant first year in the S.League.

Karoglan is expected to once again link up well with Fazrul Nawaz, who, despite a forgettable year on the international front, managed to bag 15 goals in the S.League last season.

At the back, Daniel Bennett remains a rock in the centre of defence and has been rewarded for his loyalty with the club captaincy.

However, the left-back slot has been left vacant after Shaiful Esah departed for LIONSXII, and it remains to be seen who can step up in his absence.

With Bok at the helm, SAFFC are likely to be thereabouts come season end, but they might just have to settle for a third consecutive season without a league triumph.

Prediction: 3rd

Tampines Rovers

Although Tampines Rovers just about usurped arch rivals Home United for the S-league crown last season, one would have expected the Stags to have kept faith with the core of the side which performed so spectacularly last campaign.

However, Tampines have been anything but quiet on the transfer front and their forays in the market certainly suggest that the club are intent on phasing out certain members of their old guard and injecting them with fresh blood.

While veteran forward Aleksander Duric will continue banging in the goals for the Stags at the ripe old age of 42, midfield warhorse Akihiro Nakamura, defenders Park Yo Seb and Seiji Kaneko have all been released by the club after years of sterling service.

National custodian Hassan Sunny has jumped ship to title rivals SAFFC, while last season's first choice goalkeeper Yohann Lacroix has also been cut loose.

Creative schemer Shahdan Sulaiman has also departed the Eastern side after accepting an offer from the LIONSXII outfit, while midfielders Aliff Shafaein and Shukor Zailan have been offloaded to Tanjong Pagar and SAFFC respectively.

However, it is Tampines' Balkan imports that have set pulses racing within the club. The much-vaunted quartet of goalkeeper Sasa Dreven, defender Dominik Marjanovic, midfielder Gligor Gligorov and striker Davor Piskor will be an integral component of Tampines' first eleven ahead of the new campaign.

Piskor in particular, has been under the spotlight having played alongside Tottenham Hotspur playmaker Luka Modric seven years ago while helping former side Inter Zapresic to their best finish in the top division of Croatian football.

While it is debatable as to whether the Stags' foreign legion can hit the ground running, their all-round strength in depth and penchant for attacking football will once again be the hallmark of Steven Tan's footballing set-up.

Expect the Stags to be thereabouts for the title and cup competitions come the end of the season.

Prediction: Champions

Tanjong Pagar United

The Jaguars did well to avoid finishing bottom of the league last season in their return to the S.League after a six-year absence, but it's difficult to see anything other than another bottom-of-the-table dogfight for Tanjong Pagar this term.

In Terry Pathmanathan, Tanjong Pagar have a coach with plenty of experience to draw on from his playing days, and he will need all of that as he seeks to once again keep the Protectors from finishing of the pile.

And in what is seen as a bold move, 19-year-old defender Delwinder Singh has been named captain, and given his relative youth, the likes of Aliff Shafaein and Hafiz Osman, both former Singapore internationals, will need to help guide this very young side.

Still, the Jaguars were woeful in attack last season, scoring the least number of goals in the league, and despite Pathmanathan vowing to play an attacking brand of football this time around, the lack of attacking additions means goals are still likely to be at a premium.

Prediction: 11th

Woodlands Wellington

Having finished dead last in the previous campaign, Woodlands Wellington have already moved quickly to prevent a repeat of last season's disastrous debacle.

The first casualty has been head coach R Balasubramaniam, who agreed to part ways with the club by "mutual agreement".

Former Balestier Khalsa tactician Salim Moin, who has been spotted in recent weeks guiding the Rams at training sessions and in friendly matches, has now been appointed as new chief of the Northern outfit.

Renowned for his no-nonsense approach and meticulous attention to detail, Moin will be tasked to inject some defensive discipline and shape into a Woodlands side that shipped in a staggering 92 league goals last campaign; the worst record in the S-League.

The Rams have moved quickly to make defensive reinforcements. The arrival of new club skipper Daniel Hammond from Geylang United will certainly add some much needed experience and steel to the Rams backline.

New vice-captain Duncan Elias will most likely form a central defensive partnership with Hammond at the back while Hussein Akil also arrives from Australian side Sydney Olympic. Korea Republic import Jong-Woon Hyun and Japanese marker Fumiya Kobayashi have also been drafted in from Tanjong Pagar and Hougang United respectively as the Rams look to tighten a porous defence.

Veteran goalkeeper Amos Boon, central defender Adrian Butters and midfielder Jalal are among a host of names who have been shipped out from the Woodlands team as the Rams look to exorcise the demons of last season.

Although it is still early days, one can be sure that with coach Salim at the helm, Woodlands will not be allowed under any circumstances to perform as they did last season. Not only was finishing rock bottom an absolutely humiliating episode, but the manner of their shoddy displays dished out all throughout the season would have irked the Woodlands faithful.

The Rams cannot do any worse than they did last campaign and the only way forward for the beleaguered outfit is up.

Prediction: 12th

S-League Fixtures this week

Gombak United vs Harimau Muda

Hougang United vs Tanjong Pagar

Albirex Niigata vs SAFFC

Home United vs Balestier Khalsa

Courts Young Lions vs Woodlands Wellington

DPMM vs Tampines Rovers



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