Hafiz Sujad and Khairul Amri want 2017 boost with Singapore
Singapore stars Hafiz Abu Sujad and Khairul Amri say they are ready to put an unsatisfactory end to 2016 behind them as they aim for increased success for club and country this year.
The two attackers expected to be starters for the Singapore national side in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup playoffs, beginning in March.
Hafiz, one of Singapore football's rising stars, and Amri, an established stalwart of the game, had contrasting seasons at club level last year. They ultimately had to endure the same disappointing fate in November when the Lions were eliminated from the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup in the group stage.
An excellent campaign in the S.League with Tampines saw Hafiz become the only Singaporean to be nominated for the Player of the Year award. In the process, he earned his place in the Lions' starting eleven for their first Suzuki Cup game against Philippines.
However, his campaign was over before it had barely begun when he was sent off just after half an hour against the Group A hosts, suspending him for his side's next two matches.
Despite that setback, the 26-year-old's consistent displays did not go unnoticed. He is said to have impressed in a week-long trial with Thai outfit BBCU last month.
Hafiz is still waiting to find out if he did enough to earn a move abroad, but is determined to put the Suzuki Cup episode behind him, and keep moving forward in 2017.
With a wry smile on his face, the ever-positive midfielder told ESPN FC: "For me, it was a learning experience.
"When I got the red card, I was very shocked and, even when I was alone in the changing room, I still couldn't believe that I only played 30 minutes.
"But I firmly believe it is something to make me a better person and an experience to learn from.
"So far, I haven't heard back [from BBCU], but hopefully I get some news by the end of this week, so that I can make preparations, whether it be to make plans to move over or to continue focusing on preseason with Tampines."
Regarded as a fine prospect when he was coming through the ranks in previous years, Hafiz has now established himself as one of the top players in the S.League, although he insists not much has changed in his approach to the game.
"It's still the same for me," he added. "I just strive to be professional wherever I'm playing, be it overseas or here. "I'm not going to put unnecessary pressure on myself but just give my 100 percent.
"It's about contributing as much as I can to the team and, whenever I go out on the field, I just aim to do what the coach asks of me."
One man who has made a career rising to the fore on big occasions is Amri. But 2016 was a trying year for the 31-year-old as injuries limited his influence as captain of Garena Young Lions.
He did regain form and fitness in time to be one of the Lions' brighter sparks at the Suzuki Cup, scoring his team's only goal of the campaign. He has now set his sights firmly on the future after sealing a return to Tampines on a two-year deal.
"For me, [the Suzuki Cup] is in the past," said Amri. "You can't change the result, or sit around and worry about what went wrong.
"I'm delighted to be back with Tampines as there's a special feeling here, just like when I first signed all those years back."
While he had the likes of Aleksandar Duric to play off in his previous spell with the club, Amri will now undoubtedly take on the mantle of the Stags' leading man in attack. But that may not necessarily mean added pressure for the talented striker.
"It could be seen as pressure on my shoulders but I try to ignore that, play my normal football and look to score," explained the former LionsXII and Persiba Balikpapan ace.
"I definitely feel like I'm more mature now but it doesn't matter if you're young or old -- there will always be pressure, and you just have to deal with it."
Amri and Hafiz will both be hoping for a strong start to the season to set the scene for March when they return to international duty. Singapore are set to play their first match of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup third round qualifiers in the third month of the year.
Gabriel Tan is a radio and TV pundit who writes for ESPN FC and The New Paper on Southeast Asian football. Twitter: @gabetan13.