More than 200 days after the suspension of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Singapore Premier League returned from the enforced break in mid-October with the promise of a new champion at the end of the campaign.
That prospect was thrown open after Football Association of Singapore's decision to proceed with the remainder of the campaign without defending champions Brunei DPMM. DPMM were forced to sit out the season due to difficulties in travelling to Singapore from their base in Brunei Darussalam amidst the pandemic.
Albirex Niigata (S) will be dreaming of a fourth title in five years. But could any of the local sides be sitting atop the standings at the end of the season -- a feat not accomplished since 2014 when Warriors FC lifted the title?
SPL is back, but things have changed
Tanjong Pagar United and Albirex Niigata played out a 2-2 draw in the last fixture before the season was officially suspended on March 24. The original plan to conclude the league by September 20 was thrown out of the window and the 2020 Singapore Cup was cancelled outright.
The league announced on October 9th that it will resume later in the month after a seven-month hiatus. The FAS plans to finish the competition by the end of the calendar year and revised the format so that each club faces each other only twice, instead of their usual three matches.
The top-ranked Singaporean outfit at the end of the season will qualify directly for the group stages of the expanded AFC Champions League in 2021, while the next two highest-ranked local clubs will represent the city-state in the group stages of the AFC Cup.
What has happened since the restart?
The biggest news to break since the return of the SPL has been confirmation that title favourites DPMM will not be competing this season. There have also already been some heavyweight clashes behind closed doors that have kept Singaporean football fans interested.
Albirex were in fine form on their return thrashing Young Lions 4-0 before edging title rivals Lion City Sailors FC 3-2. However, their winning run was brought to an end on Saturday by Tampines Rovers who won 2-0 to leapfrog their opponents to the top of the standings.
Balestier Khalsa FC are on a five-match unbeaten run in the league with wins over Tanjong Pagar and Geylang International since the restart. A depleted Young Lions had bounced back from the defeat to Albirex with a 2-1 triumph over Tanjong Pagar, but suffered another huge thrashing at the hands of Lion City Sailors at the Bishan Stadium on Sunday.
Who are in the fray for the 2020 title?
Five-time champions Tampines look set to mount a serious challenge for the SPL title and are leading the pack with 12 points after five matches. The Stags are eyeing a first league trophy since 2013 having finished runners-up in four of the six seasons since, including in 2019.
Albirex will provide them with stiff competition and are only one point behind the Stags, but having played a game more. After a disappointing fourth-place finish last season, the White Swans will be eager to get their hands on their fourth league title in Singapore this season.
However, putting the pressure at the top are surprise candidates in Balestier Khalsa who finished rock-bottom last year. The Tigers are level on points with Albirex but will have a difficult job in their hands to maintain their early pace as the season progresses.
Hougang are also in the mix collecting eight points from five matches while the cash-rich Lion City Sailors have also proved their quality since restart with their recent 5-0 win over Young Lions. They are currently fifth in the table with seven points from five matches.