Lion City Sailors striker Stipe Plazibat will face a late fitness test to decide if he will be ready for today’s high-stakes showdown against Singapore Premier League (SPL) leaders Albirex Niigata.
The 31-year-old Croat is the competition’s leading scorer with 14 goals, but hobbled off with a hamstring strain in the 3-1 win over Hougang United on Tuesday.
Sailors coach Aurelio Vidmar refuted the notion that he is keeping their opponents guessing. The Australian, 53, said: “We will make the decision on Sunday morning. My interest is the player’s health. If he is going to do more damage, then we won’t take the risk.
“If this was a cup final or the final game of the season, then it’s a completely different story. There’s no question we would try to play him because if he breaks down we are going into a break.
“But this situation is a bit different, a bit more delicate.”
What is undoubtedly clear are the stakes at hand. There are just five games left and this clash between first and third in the table will have a huge bearing on the championship.
The Sailors are three points behind Albirex, champions from 2016 to 2018, but will leapfrog them with a win. A loss however, will create a six-point deficit that may be too much to overcome.
The other title contenders, Tampines Rovers, also have 20 points like Albirex and travel to face Tanjong Pagar United in today’s other match.
Vidmar, the former Australia captain and coach, remains confident of his side’s ability to hit the back of the net regardless of Plazibat’s availability.
The Sailors have notched 29 goals, with 10 different scorers. Both are league-leading numbers.
They will also welcome back dynamic midfielder Song Ui-young from a head injury, while playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman, who was sorely missed in the 3-2 defeat when both sides met last month, has also returned. He will be a threat from set pieces.
Vidmar said: “Goals are a big part of Stipe’s game, and his link-up play has been very good. But the beauty of our team is everyone is itching to play and the guys who have come in have stepped up and done an amazing job.
“That’s the commitment and competition I want in the team.
“So, we are in good shape. Shahril (Ishak) is back in the team, we have Gabriel Quak, we can put Adam Swandi there, we can put Hafiz Nor up front.
“We have options, players with different characteristics and playing styles, which is a plus.”
His team are excellent front runners too. While 26 of the 36 SPL games this term have been won by the side that scores first, the Sailors are masters of this. They have picked up the full three points in all the five matches they have opened the scoring.
But standing in their way is an obdurate Albirex defence that has kept three consecutive clean sheets and a winning mentality.
Seven of their 22 goals have come after the 75th minute, including the 94th-minute winner against the Sailors.
White Swans coach Keiji Shigetomi said: “The Sailors have many star players and are not a one-man team that rely only on Stipe.
“Likewise, we have been without our striker Reo Nishiguchi (five goals), but I’m happy with the other players who have stepped up and shared the responsibility.
“We are prepared for a tough match, but we are confident of our abilities. Our late goals are a testament of our fitness and never-say-die spirit.
“Of course, we would prefer to score as many goals as early as possible, but the SPL is a very competitive league, and a win in any form is important for us.”