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Get ready for the most exciting SPL season in years

A former captain of the South Korea national team. A former Japanese international. Players who played in the Uefa Champions League and the English League.

Rarely has a Singapore Premier League season started with so much promise.

Coupled with the fine form of the local brigade who impressed in December’s Suzuki Cup, the 2022 AIA SPL is set to be the most exciting in years!

Who are the players expected to shine for their clubs? Let’s take a look.

Photo credit: Lion City Sailors

Lion City Sailors - Maxime Lestienne, 29, winger; Kim Shin-wook, 33, striker

When was the last time a player in his prime with Champions League experience left a notable European club to join the Singapore Premier League? Former Standard Liege winger Maxime Lestienne is probably the first and the Sailors will hope he can lift them into the big-time.

The former Belgian youth international scored twice for PSV in the Champions League in 2015 and compares his playing style to Dutch icon Arjen Robben. If he has similar pace, incision and end product on the wings, one can expect him to forge a goal-laden partnership with 1.98-metre South Korean striker Kim Shin-wook.

Kim, or “Wookie” as he is affectionately known to fans, has already shown Sailors’ fans what he can do with a brace that saw the team lift the Singapore Community Shield. A two-time Asian Champions League winner, the Sailors will be relying on his calibre to fire them to a good ACL run. With 176 goals already to his name, one wouldn’t bet against him breaching the 200-goal mark with the Sailors.

Photo credit: The Picture Suite

Albirex Niigata - Tadanari Lee, 36, forward

Stung by losing the SPL title on D-day last season, the White Swans have bucked their trend of unearthing unknown Japanese signings and turning them into SPL stars. Tadanari Lee is a national hero in Japan for scoring the only goal in the 2011 Asian Cup final in extra time and representing his country with distinction at Premier League club Southampton.

He may be on the wrong side of the 30s now but is still a force to be reckoned with, winning the J-League title with Yokohama F. Marinos as recently as 2019. In the Singapore Community Shield, he proved to be a livewire with his direct runs and stepovers, winning and converting a penalty even if he did end up on the losing side.

Photo credit: Leo Shengwei/Playmaker

Hougang United - Andre Moritz, 35, midfielder

After turning out for Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers in the English Championship in the early 2010s, Andre Moritz became the first hat-trick scorer in the inaugural Indian Super League in 2014 as he starred alongside Nicolas Anelka and Freddie Ljungberg at Mumbai City.

It is safe to say he has been a hit everywhere he has played. From Brazil to Turkey, England to India to South Korea, he has impressed with his ability to hold on to the ball and find a team-mate or the goal. The Brazilian will hope to stamp his mark at Hougang coming in as a late replacement for Artur who was released due to personal reasons.

Photo credit: Tampines Rovers Football Club

Tampines Rovers - Marc Ryan Tan, 20, winger

True to his initials MRT, there has been the occasional breakdown, but generally Marc Ryan Tan has been a dependable and efficient option. After returning from a knee injury, he has continued to resemble his father, former Singapore international Steven Tan, in the way they attack from wide positions with speed.

Last season, he notched three goals and two assists in 13 games as a 19-year-old and will have to up his game this year with the reduction of SPL's under-23 quota from three mandatory starters to just one coinciding with the return of star winger Christopher van Huizen.

Photo credit: The Picture Suite

Tanjong Pagar United - Zharfan Rohaizad, 25, goalkeeper

The Lions are crying out for a successor to Hassan Sunny and Izwan Mahbud between the sticks and that man could be Zharfan Rohaizad, who kept 10 clean sheets in 49 games for the Young Lions from 2016 to 2019 before he joined the Jaguars in 2021. He also had a short training stint in Brazil in 2019 as part of Mediacorp Suria's Swap Kerja 3 programme.

At 1.80-metres, he has the build and reflexes to make top-drawer saves, and he will face all the testing he needs at his own club with hotshots Khairul Amri and Khairul Nizam aiming to put one past him during training sessions. A string of consistent performances could be enough to earn him his first national cap with Hassan and Izwan in their 30s.

Photo credit: The Picture Suite/Geylang International Football Club

Geylang International - Vincent Bezecourt, 28, midfielder

Other than Lestienne, Vincent Bezecourt is also another surprise signing as he moves to Asia in search of a second wind in his career that will now span three continents. After moving to the United States in 2014, the Frenchman joined Major League Soccer club New York Red Bulls, where he chalked up numerous assists for their second team and also featured for the first team.

In recent years, he moved back to Europe and helped Alashkert win the Armenian Premier League in 2021. He also has experience playing in the Champions League and Europa League qualifiers, as well as the Conference League. Geylang struggled for service in the attacking third last term, and Bezecourt could be the perfect foil for new striker Sime Zuzul.

Photo credit: Leo Shengwei/Playmaker

Balestier Khalsa - Kuraba Kondo, 19, winger

With his shocking blonde and unruly locks, Kuraba Kondo is impossible to miss, and the Japanese winger also finds it hard not to score. The former Japan youth international, who scored against Singapore in 2017, started just three times for Albirex Niigata last season and managed to contribute eight goals and four assists in 16 games, with an impressive ratio of one goal every 103 minutes.

Under new coach Akbar Nawas, Balestier have assembled a Japanese attacking triumvirate of Shuhei Hoshino, Ryoya Taniguchi and Kondo who should score enough to lift the Tigers from their second-from-bottom finish last season.

Photo credit: Football Association of Singapore (FAS)

Young Lions - Ilhan Fandi, 19, forward

Ilhan Fandi, the third son of Singapore legend Fandi Ahmad, has been touted as the best footballer among the four brothers. And what is unique about him is that street soccer quality which he is able to translate on to an 11-a-side pitch as he plays with the ball glued to his feet and a smile plastered across his face.

Over the years, the teenager has added bulk and centimetres that have helped him become an aerial threat like his older brothers Irfan and Ikhsan. In just 30 games for the Young Lions across three seasons, he already has 11 goals. The natural No. 10 will score more even in a centre-forward role, but it won't be long before he lands himself a move to a bigger club.

By Calvin Koh

February 24, 2022

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