Tampines Rovers can't catch 'worthy champions' Albirex Niigata (S) - Raab
Despite being the nearest challengers to Albirex Niigata (S) after a 2-0 win over Home United on Monday night, Tampines Rovers boss Jurgen Raab believes his side have zero chance of overhauling the White Swans for the title.
Five wins and one draw in their last six matches meant they closed the gap to six points, but Albirex can virtually seal the title on Thursday night away to Balestier Khalsa.
A win over the Tigers would put Kazuaki Yoshinaga's side on 56 points with three games remaining. Tampines can potentially reach 56 points if they win their final three games, but would lose out due to inferior goal difference of +20 as compared to Albirex's +42.
Meanwhile, Home can reach a maximum of only 55 points, with four games left to play.
Raab, who said he has given up hopes of winning the S.League title after a 4-0 defeat to Albirex in August, maintained his stance even after Monday's big result.
"It would be possible if Albirex lost the close match against Hougang [United] last week, but they won [1-0]," the German said. "This team is too strong, and they can still afford to lose one more match in the final three matches.
"They deserve to be champions. After we lost to Albirex [in August], I said we cannot do something because we had no more matches against them. I don't think they will make mistakes."
The former Young Lions' coach remains fully focused on the battle for second. Four points ahead of Home, albeit having played a game more, they just need to collect maximum points in their final three games to seal an automatic AFC Cup spot.
The top two local sides are expected to qualify for the 2018 AFC Cup, with Albirex being likely champions, and the 2017 Singapore Cup final an an all-foreign affair.
"It's still a great success for us to finish second," Raab said. "Don't forget we lost three foreign forwards [Jermaine Pennant, Billy Mehmet and Jordan Webb], Izzdin [Shafiq] this season and also Yasir Hanapi [who went to PDRM FA midway through in the season], but are now still in second.
"Our performance was very well, and we showed why we're in this position. Now, we have three matches left and it's all in our hands to finish second. We must beat Young Lions and [Brunei] DPMM next."
Meanwhile, Home counterpart Aidil Sharin also hinted that the title bid is all but over, despite previously vowing not to give up the fight.
The Protectors put up a lacklustre display against Tampines, with the striking duo of Faris Ramli and Stipe Plazibat surprisingly subbed off in the second half when they were chasing the game.
"Since we cannot finish first, we want to finish second. That's the aim," the former Singapore international said. "I don't want to give excuses, but we're the only team that played so many games.
"Not just one or two players, but many of them didn't look sharp at all. They've been playing many games since the start of the year, so it's not easy to maintain the quality.
"We've another big game against Warriors [FC] coming up at Choa Chu Kang on Friday. So when I saw my players who are not sharp out there, I decided Stipe and Faris have to give way. If not, they may suffer injuries."
While Home play Warriors in the final Uniformed Derby of the season on Friday night, Tampines will be next in action against Raab's old side Young Lions at Our Tampines Hub 24 hours later.
Kenneth Tan is a Singapore-based football writer on S.League and AFC Cup for ESPN FC and FourFourTwo. Twitter: @KennerveT