Shock on first day of 2022 SPL season as Jaguars down Albirex
If Tanjong Pagar United had their way, the season opener against Albirex Niigata on Friday (Feb 25) would not have been played.
But the Jaguars overcame adversity to register a shock 2-0 victory over Albirex Niigata in the first match of the 2022 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season at the Jurong East Stadium.
The Straits Times understands that the Jaguars had unsuccessfully applied to have their fixture postponed due to a spate of Covid-19 cases within their ranks.
The Jaguars, who finished fifth in the eight-team SPL last season, managed to name only five out of the permitted nine substitutes - two of which were goalkeepers.
Shahrin Saberin missed out due to suspension, Shakir Hamzah was out due to a serious knee injury suffered during last year's Suzuki Cup, while new signing Daniel Bennett had yet to clear the mandatory fitness test. It is understood that first-team players Khairul Nizam, Khairul Amri and Faizal Raffi were absent after they tested positive for Covid-19 during the week.
As such, before kick-off, a procession was expected and last season's runners-up Albirex would have been licking their lips for revenge as well.
Albirex finished two points behind champions Lion City Sailors last year, and the Japanese side's only defeat came against Tanjong Pagar.
But inside 47 seconds, it was the hamstrung Tanjong Pagar who took a shock lead. Jaguars' new signing Mirko Sugic found Japanese forward Reo Nishiguchi just inside the box and the latter chested the ball and let fly a volley into the back of the net.
And while Albirex were still reeling from conceding the early goal, Tanjong Pagar struck again nine minutes later.
Sugic showed some nifty footwork in the middle of the pitch before a lofted pass put Nishiguchi through on goal. The former Albirex forward made no mistake to make it 2-0.
Matters worsened for an already decimated Tanjong Pagar when Rusyaidi Salime and Muhammad Syukri had to be stretchered off injured. But the valiant Jaguars battled on and took all three points.
It ended a proud record for Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga, who had been undefeated in his last 35 league matches since a 2-1 loss to Hougang in July 2017. The 53-year-old Japanese tactician, who returned to the club this season, has taken over a squad that have made sweeping changes. No fewer than 17 of 27 first-team members are new faces.
The 728 fans at Jurong East were elated to have witnessed the unlikely result in the league's opening game, despite the ongoing Omicron surge in the country.
From last August, SPL matches can admit up to 1,000 spectators, who have to produce proof of certification of being fully vaccinated, in order to gain entry.
Amanpreet Singh, 25, a private educator, who watched the Jaguars pull off an upset over Albirex, said: "As a fervent supporter of local football, I believe it is only right for me to lend my physical support to the players, coaches and officials who have worked ever so hard making this season possible amid truly trying times.
"The dedication shown by local clubs in preparing for the campaign despite the uncertainties faced is truly commendable.
"Moreover, safe-distancing measures at stadiums have been well enforced and there is little cause for concern as long as everyone plays their part and remains responsible."
In the weekend's fixtures, a revamped Balestier Khalsa host Tampines Rovers at the Toa Payoh Stadium on Saturday (Feb 26) while defending champions Sailors face a tricky opening game against Hougang United on Sunday (Feb 27).
In a Singapore Premier League season that will see some prominent foreign signings take to the pitch, much of the attention has been reserved for Albirex's former Japan international Tadanari Lee, Sailors' ex-South Korea captain Kim Shin-wook and even Hougang United's Andre Moritz, who was formerly with English outfit Crystal Palace.
But if the first day's action is anything to go by, Tanjong Pagar's Mirko Sugic, a relative unknown compared to the more illustrious names in the league, could be a name to remember. The 27-year-old Croat was signed on a free transfer from Croatian second-tier side NK Dubravka.
But, despite the low profile, Sugic stood out on the pitch. For a side missing several players, Sugic was immense on debut as he dominated the midfield.
He showed his aggressiveness in retrieving possession and made an impact further up the pitch - as shown with his two assists.
In a league where several Croats - namely Jure Eres, Mirko Grabovac and Stipe Plazibat - have left an indelible mark over its 27-year history, Sugic could be the latest addition on this list.