Out-of-sorts Warriors FC will be looking to strengthen their hold on fourth position in the S.League when they host Garena Young Lions at Choa Chu Kang Stadium on Saturday night.
A run of just two wins in their last nine S.League games means they are now 20 points behind leaders Albirex Niigata (S), with their title hopes having evaporated long ago.
Heading into their final five matches, the nine-time champions are now aiming to finish inside the top four, which would be an improvement on last year’s lowly seventh-placed finish.
Ahead of Saturday’s game, they sit in fourth with 30 points from 19 matches, above Geylang International on goal difference, with Hougang United four points behind in sixth.
A top-three finish seems improbable as they trail nearest challengers Home United by seven points, and have played two games more.
“Looking at where we’re now on the table and the remaining matches left to play, realistically we are looking only at third or fourth,” midfielder Ridhuan Muhammad told ESPN FC.
“We suffered earlier in the season, due to our inconsistency, and we’re not going to deny it. What I see is that we have a mixture of experienced and young players needed, on and off the bench, which our coach used to rotate earlier in the season due to tactical reasons.
“In addition to the change of foreign strikers midway through the season [from Dutch-Congolese Joel Tshimbamba to Croatian Andrei Ciolacu], it took us some time to adapt.”
The Warriors are also hoping for a more straightforward outing against Young Lions this term, having drawn 0-0 at Jalan Besar in June and scraped home 4-3 at Choa Chu Kang earlier in April.
That first meeting of 2017 was an epic one as Razif Onn’s side scored three goals in the final eight minutes to mount an incredible comeback from being 3-1 down.
The visitors will also have a point to prove, having fallen to a heavy 7-1 defeat away against Brunei DPMM last Saturday. Vincent Subramaniam’s side are mired at the bottom, with just three points from 18 games, having yet to win this season.
“We had to come back from two goals down in that first meeting, but of course we’re not going to let that happen again,” Ridhuan said.
“Young Lions are a good team — young, energetic and full of desire. We’re a team with a lot of experience, so we got to play smart and not get carried away from their latest big loss to DPMM.
“Under coach Vincent, they have actually improved a lot despite their results. So it’s definitely going to be an exciting match.
While key players Baihakki Khaizan and Syaqir Sulaiman are suspended, they can count on the trio of captain Shahril Ishak and full-backs Ho Wai Loon and Emmeric Ong, who recently returned from international duty with Singapore.
While the title is out of the equation for the Warriors, Ridhuan still is eyeing a strong finish to 2017.
“To me every stage [of the season] is important,” said the 33-year-old, who won the 2004 and 2007 AFF Suzuki Cups with Singapore. “We have set our individual and team targets from the start.
“While we dropped to fourth, we’re still going to push as we signed our contract as professionals. Now we’re just focusing on each game at a time before seeing what pans out at the end of the season.”
Kenneth Tan is a Singapore-based football writer on S.League and AFC Cup for ESPN FC and FourFourTwo. Twitter: @KennerveT