Match Preview: New-Look Eagles Kick Off Season with Stern Derby Test
Geylang International have been handed a tough assignment to start their 2023 Singapore Premier League campaign as they square off with five-time domestic title holders Tampines Rovers in a fiercely contested derby this Saturday (February 25).
On the back of successive friendly defeats in their preseason tour in Malaysia - two of which by wide margin - questions have been raised on whether head coach Noor Ali and his much-changed squad are ready to compete in the new season.
With the Eagles still gelling new recruits and searching for a winning strategy, there is much uncertainty on how prepared they are in sparring the formidable Stags on derby day.
After achieving a respectable fourth-placed finish in the league last season, Noor has taken a gamble by releasing several experienced local players who had excelled for the club and blooding yet-to-be-proven youngsters in their place.
Gone are the likes of Zaiful Nizam, Faizal Roslan, Tajeli Salamat, Umar Ramle, Hazzuwan Halim and co.
Filling in their boots for the new campaign are Ridhwan Fikri, Akmal Azman, Naufal Azman, Gareth Low et al.
On the foreign front, Geylang International have added 22-year-old Japanese forward Yushi Yamaya to their ranks, joining the retained trio of Vincent Bezecourt, Takahiro Tezuka and Rio Sakuma.
The off-season revamp has brought the team's average age to 25.6.
Standing in the way of the youthful Eagles in the season opener is an opponent whom they had not beaten in the previous six matches.
After last tasted a 3-1 victory over Tampines Rovers in the league in August 2021, Geylang International did not have much joy in subsequent derbies with two draws and four defeats.
To realise any slim hopes of a victory in the forthcoming Eastern derby, the young men in green have to be at their best in containing the attacking threats posed by the Stags' powerful frontline, spearheaded by goal machine Boris Kopitovic.
The 1.98m forward from Montenegro enjoys scoring in this fixture, having clocked an all-time high of nine goals since joining the club in 2020.
Besides relying on the usual services of Kyoga Nakamura and Taufik Suparno, Kopitovic's goalscoring exploits will be further helped by the signing of tricky winger Faris Ramli from Lion City Sailors.
With the odds heavily stacked against the Eagles, only the most optimistic fans would hold on to the belief of their beloved team snatching a positive result.
"You can't win anything with kids," their doubters would remind of former Liverpool great Alan Hansen's infamous words.
The fresh-faced Eaglets may just confound their critics and spring a surprise or two come matchday...
Team news: Fadli Kamis who picked up an anterior cruciate ligament injury in the middle of last season, continues to be ruled out for the early part of this campaign. He is pencilled to return for the second round of league matches. Joining him on the treatment table is Ahmad Syahir with the left-back sustaining a meniscus tear.
Player to watch: Yushi Yamaya - There is no doubt that the Geylang community will look to French midfield maestro Vincent Bezecourt to play a key role in helping the club succeed this season.
But all eyes on the opening day would be on Yushi Yamaya, a new foreign signing from Yokohama F. Marinos recommended by the City Football Group. Yamaya has big boots to fill in the goalscoring department as he replaces the departed Sime Zuzul who plundered 19 goals in the previous campaign. His preseason performance shows a glimpse of his talent as he rained goals against local amateur outfits. How Yamaya fares against top-tier opponents will be watched on derby day and beyond.