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 By John Duerden

Robert Alberts hopes Michael Essien won't trip up his high-flying PSM

PSM Makassar coach Robert Alberts in Bali
Robert Alberts, left, has taken PSM Makassar to the top of the table in Indonesia's Liga 1.

PSM Makassar may lack some of the star power of their mid-week rivals in Indonesia's Liga 1, but under Dutch coach Robert Alberts, fans are dreaming of a first title since 2000.

The South Sulawesi side are top of the table and have been there for much of the season, which is around one-third of the way through. Victory away to Michael Essien and star-studded Persib Bandung on Wednesday night would further reinforce PSM's credentials.

"I am happy with how this season is going in a way," Alberts, who led Arema Malang to the championship in 2010, told ESPN FC. "But as a coach you are never completely happy, so we are always looking to improve."

If PSM have to get better, then so do a number of rivals who have been struggling in their wake, despite a number of big-name imports.

Persib's Essien and Carlton Cole could line up against PSM. Title rivals Madura United have Peter Odemwingie while Semen Padang and Mitra Kukar signed Didier Zokora and Mohamed Sissoko respectively.

Alberts had the chance to sign Essien before he joined Persib on the eve of the season, but turned down the Ghanaian when his agent approached him because of doubts he had about how the 34-year-old would adjust to Southeast Asian football.

Even so, Alberts, who has extensive experience in Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea, believes that the presence of Essien, and the other star names, is a boon to Indonesian football.

"Any league needs big-name players. People, fans and media get excited and it creates interest and publicity. The players have, of course, a responsibility and can't just be passengers," said Alberts, the 2016 Indonesian coach of the year.

"The problem was that the players came just two weeks before the season started. Some clubs can afford it but these things should be planned a long time in advance, and not rushed."

Taking on Persib is a big game, even though the star-studded West Javans are struggling down in 14th. Yet, should Bandung take all three points, they will close the gap with PSM to just four points. It is symptomatic of a competitive and exciting league.

"You never know what will happen and there are six teams who can win, and anyone can beat anyone. On paper, Persib should be runaway leaders, but this is not the way things are in Indonesia," Alberts said.

Maybe not, but there is still plenty of attention on the likes of Essien, a former Real Madrid and Chelsea midfielder. Alberts insists, however, that his high-flying side will treat the trip as any other game.

Sarawak coach Robert Alberts
Robert Alberts joined PSM Makassar in 2016, having previously managed Sarawak in Malaysia.

"It doesn't matter, for my team at least, who we play. Anyway, Bandung are not just about Essien. They always have good players and can buy the best in the league. They have the best stadiums in Indonesia and they have great fans," Alberts said.

"Essien is still a good player, but not the player he was 10 years ago, he is not as involved in matches as he used to be but times have changed. And it is not just about what he can do but whether he can be a leader and inspire others. People look at that but these are difficult circumstances for foreign players to come just before the start of the season. They need time."

PSM are not able to match such investments in the playing squad but the 62 year-old is more than happy with what he has assembled. There is a solid core of local players combining well with a settled foreign contingent.

Reinaldo Costa has grabbed seven goals so far and is second in the charts, only to Madura's ex-Nigerian international Peter Odemwingie. Dutch midfield duo Marc Klok and Wiljan Pluim add guile, graft and goals. Frenchman Steven Paulle helps maintain one of the league's best defences.

"We have a limited budget here compared to some other teams, but we are fortunate to have four really good foreign players in the squad. Scouting is important and we are pleased with what we have," Alberts said.

"The motivation is there and the quality is there, but you can never forecast what will happen with injuries and in Indonesia, referees. You have to be ready to deal with some of their decisions."

TCL presents the story of Indonesian footballer Martunis, who after the 2004 Tsunami was offered the chance to meet Cristiano Ronaldo and train with Sporting Lisbon.

A PSM triumph would show that big-name signings can be useful and exciting but are not everything. It would also show that after years of turmoil, the country is heading in the right direction, seven months after the Merah Putih made the final of the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup.

Alberts added: "Indonesian football has a bright future. Football is the top priority here and they adore the game. There is a great football environment and fantastic bonding between fans and the team. You don't see people here wearing Manchester United and Liverpool jerseys. If the game is run properly then there is a good future."

The same can be said for PSM. While Robert Alberts may not be completely happy with the season so far, there must have been plenty of moments of satisfaction as his team outperform those with deeper pockets.

"We have a chance to win the league but there is still a long way to go. We have started well, but that it all so far," he smiled.

Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.

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