Warriors on the warpath
Veterans Shahril and Baihakki say experience and camaraderie vital to team's rise this season
|ALBIREX NIIGATA||WARRIORS FC|
Before the start of the 2017 Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League season, clubs like Tampines Rovers and Home United were tipped as title challengers to defending champions Albirex Niigata.
Few, if at all, would have thought of nine-time S.League champions Warriors FC, especially after their seventh-placed finish last season - their joint-worst finish in the league.
With a squad featuring veteran playmaker Shahril Ishak and centre back Baihakki Khaizan, who have a whopping 261 international caps between them, and fellow Class of '84 teammates Ridhuan Muhd and Hafiz Osman, the Warriors were written off by some as the Dad's Army.
But, six games into the season, the Warriors, who won their last league title in 2014, have proved doubters wrong by staying unbeaten.
A win over leaders Albirex in a top-of-the-table clash at the Jurong East Stadium tomorrow night will send them to the summit.
On the pitch, Shahril and Baihakki have been instrumental in their unbeaten run, which includes two come-from-behind wins against Balestier Khalsa (2-1) and the Garena Young Lions (4-3).
But, the veteran duo prefer to give their teammates due credit.
Shahril, who scored twice to help 10-man Warriors overturn a 2-0 deficit and salvage a 2-2 draw against Home United last Saturday, said: "I may have scored the goals, but we could get the point only because the team showed character and a never-say-die attitude.
"The comebacks were because of a strong mentality and it's good that we have a core of senior players who can guide the younger ones.
"We know our strengths. We are not a bunch of spring chickens like Home United, but we have experience which we must use to overcome teams.
"Being reunited with some of the older players, we have good chemistry which has spread through the team.
"Of course, we can still improve in certain areas but, even at this early stage, there is great motivation to become the first team to beat Albirex this season and go top.
"It won't be easy because they are comfortable playing at home on their artificial pitch at Jurong East.
"We must not let them dictate the pace of the game because they are fast and good with the ball."
The Warriors are one of the most prolific teams in the league this season, having scored 15 goals from six games.
Even defender Baihakki has chipped in with four assists, while Shahril has three goals and three assists to his name.
"I'm not going for the topscorer award but, if there's a need, I'll move up and help," quipped Baihakki.
"And that's just how we are as a team, we help one another out like a family would.
"Our philosophy is to score goals. Of course, we would like to keep clean sheets too, but we want to be a team people want to watch. Would fans rather watch us win 4-3 or eke out a 1-0 victory?
"I know we have not kept a clean sheet yet. It bothers me, but not in a negative way.
"We will start as underdogs against Albirex and, to be honest, we are not at their level.
"But, on our day, we can beat them, just like how we beat them twice last season."
Both players have been sidelined by national football coach V Sundramoorthy in recent months and Shahril was diplomatic about whether they could force their way back into the reckoning if they keep up their fine performances for the Warriors.
He said: "It all depends on the coach. In any case, I see many players performing well for their respective clubs in the S.League, which makes for good competition for places in the national team.
"Right now, we are focused on playing our best for Warriors FC to help the club win a 10th league title.
"Bai, Ridhuan and I have not yet won a title in the major Singapore competitions yet so, on a personal level, that's also the dream we are all working hard to try and achieve."
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