The Singapore Premier League returns on Friday and, for the fifth time in seven years, it is Albirex Niigata (S) who will be the team to beat in 2023.
A late-season surge last term was enough to see the White Swans overtake Lion City Sailors to win the title by a narrow two-point margin, with Tampines Rovers finishing third and a distant nine points behind the champions.
For the first time since 2019, the SPL will once again feature nine teams with the return of Brunei DPMM, two-time champions of the competition who had to sit out the past three years due to travel complications stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
With increased competition possible from a number of fast-improving upstarts but a handful of traditional contenders still expected to lead the way, the new season promises aplenty.
Here, we look at five big questions ahead of the 2023 SPL campaign.
Will annual Albirex revolution produce another championship side?
Albirex's five titles in the past seven seasons is even more remarkable, considering the nature of the club ultimately still being a satellite team of their J1 League counterpart of the same name means their squad is constantly revamped on an annual basis.
The ever-growing number of Singaporean players in their ranks has allowed for some continuity although they remain younger prospects rather than key figures and, even then, they did allow starlet Ilhan Fandi -- who bagged 15 goals in the league for them after joining midway through the season -- to pursue a move to Europe with Belgian outfit Deinze.
Albirex did manage to retain the services of former Southampton man Tadanari Lee -- who famously scored the extra-time goal that won Japan the 2011 AFC Asian Cup -- and his presence in the dressing room far outweighs his on-field contributions, even if he rack up ten goals in the league in 2022.
And adding to the experience that the defending champions will boast this season is the arrival of Singapore goalkeeper Hassan Sunny, a two-time SPL winner with over a century of caps to his name.
Are Sailors set to bounce back or has the bubble burst?
Since the Sailors were born from the ashes of the now-defunct Home United, they have emerged as a real dominant force -- winning the SPL in 2021 and coming close again last season before a last-season slump ultimately saw them pipped to the crown by Albirex.
With foreign stars Maxime Lestienne and Diego Lopes retained for new campaign along with the arrival of ex-Albirex star Kodai Tanaka, who scored 33 times in the league alone last term, as well as a whole host of Singapore internationals such as Hariss Harun, Hafiz Nor and M. Anumanthan, LCS still have arguably the strongest team in the competition on paper.
Yet, it has not been all smooth sailing for LCS with the club parting ways with AFC Champions League-winning coach Kim Do-hoon midway through 2022, although they have since decided on the experienced Risto Vidakovic as his fulltime successor.
Key departures within both the playing squad and backroom staff in recent times have also raised questions whether the Sailors are still capable of spending as much as they previously did, and the onus will be on the club to produce a response on the field this year.
Who from the chasing pack can mount a serious challenge?
So if not Albirex or LCS, who else could potentially challenge for top honours?
The likeliest candidates are Tampines Rovers, five-time champions themselves who will always be capable of matching it with the competition's best teams as long as they can call upon the free-scoring Boris Kopitovic -- the competition's top scorer last season with a whopping 35 goals.
Also being able to rely on seasoned campaigners such as Kyoga Nakamura and Yasir Hanapi, the Stags look set to be even more dangerous in attack following the off-season signing of Singapore international Faris Ramli, who recently featured in his fifth successive AFF Championship.
Beyond them, Hougang United will be looking to build on picking up their first-ever silverware after they won the Singapore Cup last season but a sustained title challenge across the duration of an entire league campaign might just be beyond them, while it remains to be seen if the likes of Geylang International and Tanjong Pagar United can find the required level of consistency.
What can be expected of DPMM following three-year hiatus?
The 2023 SPL season will see the unique scenario of featuring two teams who won the title in their most recently-completed campaign.
In addition to Albirex, DPMM are back for the first time since 2020 when they were then the defending champions but then withdrew from the competition after one game of their title defence due to the escalating coronavirus pandemic.
With backing from the Crown Prince of Brunei and traditionally consisting of the country's entire national team, DPMM should have the quality to challenge for top honours.
However, having been deprived of higher-level competition in the past three years, even domestically, it remains to be seen if the Bruneian outfit are able to get up to speed immediately and come out with all guns blazing.
Could Young Lions finally shed their whipping boys status?
Having finished as high as third twice previously in their history, Young Lions have not enjoyed much joy in recent years as they find themselves entrenched in and around the foot of the table.
It has led to debate as to whether the team, designed as a developmental squad for the Singapore national team, still has a purpose to serve -- even if their presence does offer opportunities to young prospects juggling their mandatory National Service commitments who would otherwise likely find themselves sidelined for their clubs.
Nonetheless, the results have to speak for themselves and conceding a staggering 102 goals in just 28 games is not good enough, which has led to a coaching change and the introduction of Philippe Aw, an experienced tactician with a good track record of developing youth.
The new season will also see Young Lions field foreigners for the first time since 2016 with a view that these players could eventually be naturalised to play for Singapore, and -- to their credit -- they could not have opted for two better choices that centre-back Jun Kobayashi and playmaker Kan Kobayashi (both not related), who both starred for Albirex in last year's title-winning campaign.