SPL goal machines Kopitovic and Tanaka cross paths as race for Golden Boot nears end
They have been on the warpath in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) this season, leaving teams dazed and wondering what hit them.
And with two games left this term, the league's two most prolific strikers, Boris Kopitovic (Tampines Rovers) and Kodai Tanaka (Albirex Niigata) - each on 31 goals - clash head on.
Their two sides meet at Our Tampines Hub on Saturday evening as they look to pip one another to the league's top scorer award, which remains unclaimed despite Albirex wrapping up the league title last weekend.
If Kopitovic and Tanaka end the season with the same tally, they will share the prize. That, however, will no doubt be an unsatisfactory ending for either player, after what has been a sensational season for both.
Hougang United coach Clement Teo, whose side have conceded to Kopitovic in all four games they have played with Tampines this term, said the striker's recent change in style has made him tough to shackle.
At 1.89m, Kopitovic is a handful for local defenders. Teo noted that the Montenegrin, already known for a physical style of play, has also evolved over the course of the term and "is also playing very differently now than at the beginning of the season".
"He is more of a team player," explained Teo, "and creates chances for his teammates around him. Earlier on, he was very straight and focused on the goal: Go, go, go.
"This change has made him very unpredictable. And when you're unpredictable, you've very hard to mark."
Tampines coach Gavin Lee told The Straits Times in July that he had worked on improving Kopitovic's all-round game, which included defending from the front.
This, added Young Lions coach Nazri Nasir, gave the 27-year-old player a new dimension. Kopitovic had already developed a reputation as a clinical finisher with 25 goals in 35 games over his first two seasons after signing for Tampines in 2020, but has added assists to his game too, racking up 12 in 2022.
Nazri, whose side have been punished five times by Kopitovic this season, said: "We know he can be a typical 'fox in the box', but even then some of the goals he has scored this season have been just brilliant."
Tanaka has also enjoyed his outings against the Young Lions - he has scored seven against the developmental side - and Nazri highlighted the Albirex man's positional sense.
"Tanaka is a natural striker, and after Ilhan Fandi joined the team in April, he has had to play in a different role (as a wide attacker) but they have blended very well.
"It doesn't matter what position or situation he is in, Tanaka is fast, good with his feet and in the air, and the timing of his runs... He's a very talented player," said the former Singapore skipper.
Indeed, former Yokohama F. Marinos youth player Tanaka has benefited from being a part of Albirex's "LIT" frontline comprising ex-Southampton and Japan man Tanadari Lee, Ilhan and himself. The trio have combined for 57 goals - more than five of the other seven teams in the SPL.
Tanaka's favourite opponents are Balestier Khalsa, whom he has scored nine goals against. This includes two incredible four-goal hauls.
Noting that seven of those nine goals were scored with his head, Balestier full-back and skipper Darren Teh remarked of Tanaka: "What makes him so hard to play against? Probably his aerial threat and his off-the-ball movement, which is one of the best in the league.
"His teammates understand him very well, and he's the type of player that if he's gone from your sight and has space with the ball, he'll put away the chance."
With both teams not having anything left to prove - Tampines have also wrapped up third place in the SPL - this race for the Golden Boot could well be what sets the match alight.
Other SPL fixtures this week
Tanjong Pagar v Lion City Sailors (Friday, 7.45pm, Jurong East)
The Sailors are smarting after losing their SPL crown to Albirex Niigata last week, and will look to take out some of their frustrations on Tanjong Pagar as they look to snap a four-match losing streak.
The Jaguars are unbeaten in four games, but there are question marks over their defence. They have not kept a clean sheet since July, and have lost all three of their previous meetings with the Sailors, with an aggregate score of 20-1.
Balestier v Geylang (Friday, 7.45pm, Toa Payoh)
Two teams who have blown hot and cold recently. Balestier have found their scoring boots since Peter de Roo took over as head coach, scoring 13 goals in their last four games. In the past two weeks, they beat the Sailors 5-3 but then were held to a 4-4 draw by bottom side Young Lions.
Geylang, meanwhile, are winless in three games, having won eight of the 11 games prior.
Young Lions v Hougang (Saturday, 5.30pm, Jalan Besar)
LWDWDLWDLWLDWDL. That is not the name of a Welsh village, but a brief summary of Hougang's inconsistent form over the last 15 SPL games.
Stringing two wins in their last two games - over the Young Lions and second-from-bottom Balestier - will give the Cheetahs a little boost ahead of the Oct 27-Nov 19 Singapore Cup.
The Young Lions, who have shipped 96 goals in a dismal season, will hope they can end the season without setting a new record for the league's most porous defence. That ignominious mark is currently held by Balestier Central's 2002 cohort (103).