Lion City Sailors, Tampines Rovers lay down a marker as champions Albirex Niigata (S) forge new identity

Lion City Sailors got their 2024-25 Singapore Premier League campaign off to an emphatic start on Friday as they beat Hougang United 4-1 -- with their goals coming from four different scorers. Singapore Premier League

As the 2024-25 Singapore Premier League season got underway at the weekend, it did not take long for two heavyweights to lay down an immediate marker.

And, surprisingly, defending champions Albirex Niigata (S) were not one of them.

Kicking things off on Friday were 2021 SPL winners Lion City Sailors, who -- fresh off a Community Shield triumph over Albirex from a week before -- picked up where they left off with an empathic 4-1 rout of Hougang United.

Two days later, BG Tampines Rovers -- five-time league champions but whose most-recent triumph came all the way back in 2013 -- would issue a statement of intent of their own as they beat Albirex 3-1.

It is far too early to be drawing sweeping conclusions after just the opening week but things are admittedly looking positive for the Sailors, in the way they promise to continue dominating the competition's lesser lights, and Tampines, based on how they saw off a fellow title contender.

The Sailors were always expected to challenge given they have finished runners-up in the past two campaigns since they last lifted the trophy, although last season's eight-point margin between them and Albirex did hint that they had some ground to make up.

There were two notable departures in the offseason in the form of midfield playmaker Diego Lopes and striker Richairo Živković but some savvy recruiting looks to have strengthened coach Aleksandar Ranković's hand.

Former PSV man Bart Ramselaar, who is playing outside the Eredivisie for the first time in his career, has slotted in seamlessly as a creative presence -- even if he has begun his stint with the Sailors playing in a wider area than where Lopes used to occupy.

While the Sailors did not bring in a direct replacement for Živković, they look set to put their faith in Singapore international Shawal Anuar to lead the line -- and he has thus far delivered with two goals in as many games.

From captain Hariss Harun in the engine room to Australia defender Bailey Wright and reigning SPL Player of the Year Maxime Lestienne, who racked up a staggering 25 goals and 21 assists last year, the spine of the team remains intact -- with the rout of Hougang coming without regulars Song Ui-Young and Lionel Tan, and with the likes of M. Anumanthan and Hafiz Nor biding their time on the bench.

Likewise, Tampines have retained a significant portion of their squad from last term but Seia Kunori promises to be a fine addition.

Following a 21-goal haul with Albirex in 2023, the 23-year-old had no shortage of suitors but ultimately landed at Tampines and -- while he initially found the going tough against his former side on Sunday -- he would ultimately come up with a pivotal two-goal display, with both being superb long-range efforts.

Despite boasting no professional playing experience, Tampines coach Gavin Lee -- still only 33 -- has rapidly established himself as one of Singapore's top coaching prospects since being handed his first top job with the Stags in 2019.

Under him, Tampines have emerged as arguably the most fluid and versatile team in the SPL and are a joy to watch when in full flight.

A left-back last season, Glenn Kweh was deployed on the right side of attack against Albirex -- and that is just one example of how Lee keeps opposition teams on their toes with his tactical manoeuvring.

Even the way Tampines shaped up against the White Swans at the weekend was particularly intriguing.

Firstly, while naturally a striker, Kunori was largely operating deeper as a No. 10 behind Boris Kopitovic and, although they were fielded in a 4-2-3-1 formation, it often evolved into a three-man defence in possession as midfielder Shah Shahiran dropped into the backline to allow the full-backs to push forward and provide extra attacking bodies in the wider areas.

Given their history, Tampines are always expected to be among the challengers but they have been a distant third in the past two seasons.

Whether or not they can push one or two steps further in 2024-25 will provide one of the major storylines from this season.

So where does this leave Albirex?

It must be acknowledged that this is the first campaign since the White Swans decided to pivot to a predominantly-local outfit, as opposed to the satellite team of the J1 League outfit of the same name that they were founded as in 2004.

Both club chairman Daisuke Korenaga and coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga have conceded that it will be a challenge and stressed the need for patience.

In their defeats to the Sailors and Tampines so far, they have been far from poor but are perhaps lacking a cutting edge in the final third -- something that has been a major strength in the past.

But there is reason to remain optimistic, mainly because they still possess plenty of quality on paper, from Singapore internationals Hassan Sunny, Ho Wai Loon and Daniel Goh, to seasoned foreigners like 2018 SPL top scorer Shuhei Hoshino and ex-Japan international Yojiro Takahagi - a two-time J1 League winner with Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

More straightforward tests lie ahead for Albirex in the coming weeks and, as they forge a new identity, it is perhaps wiser to wait to see if they will find their title credentials or if this is truly a transitional season.

Still, they will be aware they now have a response to issue -- especially after the opening-week challenge that was laid down by the Sailors and Tampines.