Eight minutes was all Stipe Plazibat needed to open his Lion City Sailors account last Sunday. By the end of the match, he had scored another and led his team to a 4-0 win over Geylang International.
After a rough start to the season – a 1-1 draw against Tanjong Pagar United was followed by the 4-0 drubbing by Tampines Rovers – the Sailors are finally on calmer waters with their first victory, and Plazibat will be key to their title tilt.
If the Sailors were investing in the potential of 23-year-old Andy Pengelly, who scored against the Jaguars but was released during the coronavirus-induced break, they have now bought proven quality in Plazibat.
The 31-year-old Croat has amassed 56 goals in 71 Singapore Premier League (SPL) games since he joined Hougang United in 2016.
Ahead of today’s game against Albirex Niigata at Jurong East Stadium, Sailors coach Aurelio Vidmar said: “Stipe has experience, strength and is a very smart player in how he brings players into the game. He’s also a great guy who gets along seamlessly with the boys. He was a former Home United player and is like a son who never left.
“It was a good win over Geylang – we had no passengers and we levelled our goal difference. The break was good because I arrived in December with my ideas and it takes time for everyone to understand it. With the big break, it feels we are in our second season now, and everyone has a much clearer picture of what we have to do on the pitch.”
With the season shortened from three rounds to two rounds of fixtures (24 games to 16), and defending champions Brunei DPMM’s participation hanging in the balance, Vidmar knows beating fellow contenders Albirex could be decisive in landing the title with potentially just 10 games left after the match.
Apart from DPMM who won their sole game this term, Albirex are the SPL’s only unbeaten team and are second with eight points from four games.
The Sailors are four points back. But with a game in hand, they know they can seize the initiative with a win over the Japanese side.
Plazibat said: “It will be a tough game. Albirex change many of their players every season, but we can be sure they have a very fit team.
“I feel this season, they play more long balls to the channels and we have to be mindful of that.
There is pressure on me to score the goals for a big team like us to win, but I like it this way because I take it as motivation to prove something.
- SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE
Geylang v Balestier
Ch111/Ch201, Our Tampines Hub, 5.20pm
Albirex v Lion City
Ch112/Ch202, Jurong East Stadium, 5.20pm
Young Lions v Tg Pagar
Ch111/Ch202, Jurong West Stadium, 5.20pm
All on Singtel TV/StarHub and SPL’s Facebook page
“It has been a smooth transition since I joined in September. There is pressure on me to score the goals for a big team like us to win, but I like it this way because I take it as motivation to prove something.
“The ambition is clear at this club – to win the SPL and play in the AFC Champions League. The club have backed up this ambition by bringing in quality coaches and players. Now, we have to beat teams like Albirex to show we are serious and legit.”
Albirex, champions from 2016 to 2018, are no pushovers though. Since 2017, and with the exception of last year’s Community Shield shootout, the White Swans had not lost in 13 games – nine wins and four draws with an aggregate score of 29-10 – against Home United before they privatised and became the Sailors.
This season, they swept aside Geylang and Young Lions 4-0, and showed character to grab late equalisers in 2-2 draws against Balestier Khalsa and Tanjong Pagar.
In forward Reo Nishiguchi, they also have an in-form attacker who has scored in all four games so far.
Yet, Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi remains the perfectionist. He said: “We need to defend better and be more clinical in front of goal.
“We are aware Stipe is a good player who has J.League experience (with Gifu in 2013 and 2014), but there are many other star players in Lion City Sailors. We can only focus on playing our own football.
“Reo’s goals are a result of our teamwork, and we have to do better if we are to beat the Sailors. It is vital to keep winning, as our early-season target is to win the league.”