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Jermaine Pennant and Fandi Ahmad's sons headline 2016 S.League season

ESPN FC's Nicole Asgar and John Wilkinson preview the new S.League season where former Liverpool player Jermaine Pennant looks to make his mark for Tampines Rovers.

The 2016 Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League season is upon us and, as ever, the Lunar New Year brings with it renewed reason for optimism.

While a ball has yet to be kicked, the S.League has already made headlines in recent weeks for all the right reasons. Many are quietly confident this could be the year Singapore's sole professional sporting competition recaptures the imagination of fans.

ESPN FC picks out five reasons to watch in the coming campaign.

1. Return of household names from LionsXII

Let's get to the proverbial 'elephant in the room' straight away.

There is no secret that, following the expulsion of the LionsXII from the Malaysia Super League, a host of famous names adored by the Jalan Besar Stadium faithful, will return to the S.League.

Khairul Amri, with over 100 Singapore caps to his name, will now be the main man for Garena Young Lions. And the likes of Izwan Mahbud, Madhu Mohana, Faris Ramli and Gabriel Quak will ensure that supporters have every reason to pledge their allegiances to Tampines Rovers, Warriors FC, Home United and Geylang International respectively.

2. The most competitive season in years

The S.League may have had its fair share of detractors in recent times, but there is no denying that the past few seasons have delivered plenty of thrills in the title race. In 2014, Warriors came from nowhere to be crowned champions on the last day of the season by pipping Brunei DPMM FC. Steve Kean's made amends last year by holding their nerve to beat Balestier Khalsa in their final game to win the title ahead of Tampines.

With all the sides strengthening over the off-season, it is difficult to say who will rise above the rest and emerge triumphant come the end of October.

Even the most ardent of Tampines or DPMM supporters would think twice before claiming their team are heavy favourites to win the title.

Tampines winger Jermaine Pennant
Jermaine Pennant will be the star attraction for the 2016 S.League.

3. Top class foreign talent

Former Arsenal and Liverpool attacker Jermaine Pennant has been hogging the headlines since joining Tampines, and rightfully so.

But there is reason to believe he will not be the only import who will be lighting up the stage in the coming months.

Home United will once again have the brilliant Ken Ilso; Balestier Khalsa have gone for the tried and tested by retaining Miroslav Kristic, Emir Lotinac and Robert Pericic, while the Hougang United duo of Jozef Kaplan and Fumiya Kogure has proven to be among the cream of the crop in past years.

However, Warriors' Nikola Rak, Stipe Plazibat of Hougang and Albirex Niigata (S) midfielder Shuto Inaba have already shown glimpses that they could be hidden gems waiting to be unearthed.

Home United's Ikhsan Fandi
Ikhsan Fandi is one of the rising stars in Singapore football. (Photo credit: Home United)

4. The sons of Singapore's favourite footballing product

When your father happens to be the legendary Fandi Ahmad, there is bound to be plenty of pressure on the young shoulders of Irfan Fandi and Ikhsan Fandi.

It will be important to manage expectations and preach patience over Home's new precocious duo, but there is no denying they have already shown plenty of potential.

On his Singapore Under-23 debut, Irfan scored his team's only goal against the Japan side who recently won the AFC U23 Championship, while Ikhsan netted a memorable hat trick for the U16's against their Liverpool counterparts in last year's Lion City Cup.

They will take time to develop this season, especially Ikhsan who has signed on to the Protectors' Prime League team. But there appears to be no better man to groom them than coach Philippe Aw, who received plaudits for putting his faith in youth in 2015.

Delwinder Singh, centre, will be a key member of the Hougang team this season.

5. Overdue recognition for loyal servants

No longer can the Singapore national team selectors claim that the country's best talent ply their trade outside the S.League, with the exception of Hariss Harun, Safuwan Baharudin, Hassan Sunny, Baihakki Khaizan and Shahril Ishak.

With LionsXII out of the picture, Lions coach Bernd Stange and his team must now be at every S.League game, casting their eye over individuals deserving of a call-up.

With that, hopefully they will now acknowledge the talents of the numerous individuals who have manfully carried on away from the limelight in previous campaigns.

Be it Home's brilliant playmaker Azhar Sairudin, Balestier's flying winger Zulkiffli Hassim or Hougang's ever-improving Delwinder Singh, it is time they receive the necessary recognition should their performances continue to demand it.

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