Match Preview: Sakuma Looks to a Good Finish to the Season
"I really want to get a girlfriend. Please fans, text me. I am waiting," pleaded Geylang International defender Rio Sakuma with a wide grin, in a 12-second club video to celebrate Valentine's Day earlier this year.
The 25-year-old Japanese bachelor would have no lack of suitors next year after an outstanding season with the Eagles, with his rock-solid defensive displays winning the affection of the club fanbase.
Establishing himself as a crowd favourite as the season progresses, Sakuma has also been taking time out to support the Ultras Eagles in their futsal matches.
An off-season signing from Tiffy Army FC, Sakuma had big shoes to fill, following the departure of long-serving centre-back and captain Yuki Ichikawa.
Indeed, a promising debut in a 1-0 victory over Lion City Sailors was followed by a torrid run of 11 winless matches, where he and his defensive partners let in 27 goals. Only Hougang United failed to breach Sakuma's defence during that sequence.
The ever-present foreigner - who has played every minute this campaign - took an extended period to form a settled partnership with Joshua Pereira and Faizal Roslan which coincided with the Eagles' uptick in form.
Never afraid of barking orders to his teammates, Sakuma shored up the defence and added seven shutouts, with the latest coming from a goalless draw against Tampines Rovers last weekend.
Presently, Geylang International have the league's third-best defence, coupled with the highest tally of clean sheets among all top-flight Singaporean clubs.
With the Eagles holding on to their slim chance of qualifying for Asia, Sakuma seeks to continue keeping his defence watertight and collecting maximum points from the remaining three fixtures, while hoping their cross-town Tampines rivals - who only need three more points to qualify - would do the improbable by slipping up.
Against Tanjong Pagar United this Sunday (October 9), the central defender is handed a key assignment of taming his Japanese compatriot, Reo Nishiguchi.
The prolific Jaguars forward is on the back of a five-goal haul against Young Lions and is four goals shy of leading league scorer Boris Kopitovic's tally of 29 goals.
But having subdued the attacking threat of Kopitovic in the previous derby, Sakuma believes he can repeat the feat against another Golden Boot contender.
Team news: Geylang International coach Noor Ali has a full-strength squad to call upon, barring the long-term absence of Fadli Kamis.