As Lion City Sailors and Albirex Niigata (S) start strong, Singapore Premier League could have a host of contenders in 2023

Lion City Sailors Lion City Sailors FC

The vanquished champions from last season started strongly -- and were then matched by last year's winning team a day later.

While Lion City Sailors and Albirex Niigata (S) both began their 2023 Singapore Premier League campaigns with convincing victories, the new season already promises to be more than just a two-horse race.

For now though, the aforementioned duo do look like they will live up to pre-season expectations - especially after the performances they dished up in the opening round.

Kicking off the season on Friday, the Sailors were largely in control of their tie against Tanjong Pagar United even if they had to wait till right at the death to seal a 3-1 win.

Based on the scoresheet, it was new striker Kodai Tanaka -- who racked up a whooping 33 goals for Albirex last season -- who made an instant impact with a debut double, but a few older faces also showed why they will remain influential figures for LCS this year.

Assist machine Maxime Lestienne, who was twice called up by Belgium without ever winning a senior cap, created all three of the Sailors' goals on Friday, and promises to once again be a creative force of nature.

As usual, Diego Lopes pulled the strings in his No. 10 role but interestingly, Singapore captain Hariss Harun was restored to the engine room after recently being more often deployed in defence, with youngster Bill Mamadou instead shifted to centre-back alongside Lionel Tan.

With the likes of Hafiz Nor, Christopher van Huizen and Nur Adam Abdullah their usual serviceable selves, the Sailors will once again be a tough team to get points off in 2023.

One team that did manage to do that last season -- en route to winning a fifth title in the past seven years -- was Albirex, and they too were largely untroubled in a 3-0 win over Young Lions.

Granted, if was an unspectacular-if-steady result against the perennial whipping boys (and as an age-group team, some of them are indeed boys) but Albirex will only get better as the season goes on, given they are a completely new side with little experience playing with one another.

As ever, with Albirex's annual revamp, there was plenty of intrigue as to who would emerge as their key men this year.

Intriguingly enough, coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga could even afford to leave a notable name they retained from last term -- former Japan and Southampton striker Tadanari Lee -- out of his starting XI as he unleashed his new charges.

Captain Asahi Yokokawa was a dynamic presence in the middle of the park and was eventually rewarded for his enterprise as one of his trademark late runs into the box was rewarded with the White Swans' second, as he showed his pedigree having previously been on the books of J1 League outfit Shonan Bellmare.

While he does not play in a position that usually catches, right-back Ryo Takahashi -- another who also came through the ranks of a top-tier Japanese club in FC Tokyo -- impressed as well, while Albirex usually get it right with their centre-backs and look to have done so once again with Koki Kawachi and Shunsaku Kishimoto.

The other team to enjoy a winning start to the campaign over the weekend was Hougang United, as they saw off Balestier Khalsa 3-2 in a thriller on Sunday.

Expectations surrounding Hougang are at an all-time high after their landed their first-ever silverware last year by winning the Singapore Cup and, while their performance was far from faultless, it was imperative that they still avoided dropping points right from the off against opponents expected to struggle once more this term.

Then, in Saturday's Eastern derby, Tampines Rovers and Geylang International played out a 1-1 draw that offered glimpses as to why both could have reason to hope for improvement in 2023.

Tampines, the team that came closest to Albirex and LCS last year, look to have pulled off a huge coup in securing the services of Faris Ramli, who netted their equaliser against the Eagles and could be an important presence in adding an alternative scoring option to both Boris Kopitovic -- following his golden boot-winning haul of 36 goals last season -- and the unheralded but impactful Taufik Suparno.

On Geylang's part, challenging for the title may be still a step too far but Saturday's showing proved they can match it with the competition's bigger boys, especially with the talismanic Vincent Bezecourt and exciting new signing Yushi Yamaya leading from the front.

And to add to the mix, two-time champions Brunei DPMM -- returning after a three-year absence -- have not even returned to the field after sitting out the opening round of the nine-team competition.

The cream eventually rises to the top and it may still be Albirex and LCS battling for the title as they did last season.

But after just one round of the 2023 season, the potential variety of contenders adds to the excitement of what should be captivating campaign.