RHB Singapore Cup: Yotha set for taste of Japan
Photography by Paul Green
One of the most interesting fixtures in this season’s RHB Singapore Cup preliminary round is also the last to be played, namely the match at Jurong East Stadium on Saturday evening.
Both teams will be strangers to one another when they meet, and each of hosts Albirex Niigata (Singapore) and Yotha FC, the first Laotian club to play in this competition, will be entering into the unknown.
The opposing coaches have tried to find out as much as they can about one another, with minimal success, and on the night it is going to be a matter of making adjustments as they go along, should either find things that surprise them.
For White Swans coach Koichi Sugiyama, a brief Youtube clip of Yotha captain Lamnao Singto, who is a member of the Laos national team, is all that is available.
“I saw their No.8, very good player!” said Sugiyama.
The coach of the Yotha side, Somsack Keodala, who works with senior-turned-assistant Bounlap Khenkitisack, knows only what he has seen in brief clips on the Albirex website and what a Japanese coach he knows from Japanese Football Association coaching courses he has attended has told him.
“They are very fast and skilful, and their tactics are good,” he acknowledged.
“It’s going to be very interesting to play against them, as none of us have ever played a Japanese team before, though we have met teams with individual Japanese players.
“This is especially so for our captain, who has played for three different clubs in Thailand and is a regular in our national team.”
Somsack omitted to mention Lamnao’s history with the club, as the 24-year-old had been with them since 1999, when he was only a young prospect and not even in his teens.
The three-year coach Somsack alluded to proved the only interruption in the forward’s career in Laos, and in that time Lamnao represented two Provincial League clubs before moving to Provincial Electric Authority in 2008.
Since returning to his homeland, he has been productive up front, notching 24 goals in the club’s 18-match campaign last year and having 12 to his name in the current league season.
Modestly, as one of the prominent national team players, he could not recall how many he has scored for Laos, though his coach remembered that in the last SEA Games he topped his country’s scoring charts with six goals.
“I think Albirex are going to be a very strong team for us to play,” said Lamnao, turning the focus to the task at hand.
“I will do my best to help the team through to the next round.”
Including Lamnao, there are no fewer than seven national team players in this Yotha side, including goalkeeper Souvanhpheng Phanthavong and talented forward Visay Phaphouvanin.
Currently sitting in fourth place in the 2012 Lao League standings, after playing 14 of their 18 games for the season, the defending champions are one of four major forces in their domestic competition.
Like several other clubs in the country, Yotha are affiliated with a national ministry, in their case the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation (MPWT), whose logo features on their shirts and equipment.
When formed in 1997 they played as Ministry of Telecom and Transportation, before taking on their current identity in 2011 and taking on a more professional look, complete with a sponsorship by Lao Airlines.
They usually play in yellow shirts and blue shorts, but will be donning their alternative light blue strip with yellow trim and black shorts against Albirex during their Singapore visit.
While doing well here will be very welcome, Somsack made it clear that doing well on the domestic front remained the top priority.
“We are three points off the lead at the moment,” said the 46-year-old.
“We will be playing the leaders, Vientiane Capital, in our final match, and we hope to finish at least second, though winning the title again will be very difficult.
“We all play our games in the same stadium in Vientiane. Most of our games are played at 5pm, under lights, as it gets dark earlier in Vientiane than it does in Singapore.
“We had a game on Wednesday night, so we could only get here on Thursday night, but I didn’t rest any of my players as they are all fit. Only two were suspended so those will be fresh for this game, the goalkeeper and Saynakhonevieng (Phommapanya).”
The team won their midweek match 3-1, so they are currently in decent form.
Somsack is no stranger to Singapore, having competed in the SEA Games here along with his assistant Bounlap, who is even more widely travelled than he is.
Most of the national team players in the squad are not making their first trip to Singapore, but those who are here for the first time seem to be taking the experience in their stride.
“We got in quite late on Thursday night and the players had a good rest; today we will be training at 5pm, then tomorrow we do some stretching at the hotel. It should be enough.”
Initially the Lao team had expected to train at Jurong East on the eve of the game, but they were sent instead to Tampines Stadium, nearer to their temporary base in the eastern part of town.
They will get their feel of the Jurong East pitch soon enough, one feels, although for the Albirex players this match may not come soon enough.
Some of them players had been expecting to go home to Japan for a five-day break around this time, or at least take a short holiday in the local region, but this match, originally scheduled for a week earlier, had to be postponed due to Yotha’s Lao League commitments.
The White Swans will still get their break as soon as they come through this game, and Sugiyama has kept them up to the mark ahead of this important Cup match with some solid training.
As losing finalists last season, the team and their coach are keen to do well in the competition again, though Sugiyama was quick to emphasise that all three trophies are still in his sights.
“We have the disadvantage of the change of date and keeping the players in training longer than we expected, but we’re pleased that all of the players who had booked their airline tickets were able to delay their holiday plans,” said the former Urawa Red Diamonds defender.
“We’d like to especially thank the FAS for helping us make that possible.
“We had a good game against Gombak when we won 1-0 two weeks ago, and after this Cup match we have a few more weeks off.
“Then we play SAFFC at Choa Chu Kang, which we are looking forward to.
“When the players come back we’ll have some intensive training. Our priority is the same for the S.League, the League Cup and the Singapore Cup.
“We would like to try and win all three,” he added optimistically.
“We will play our (own style of) football against this Yotha team, and we will watch the game carefully (as it unfolds). If we need to make tactical changes during the game we will do so.”
The emphasis on playing their usual way was notable for Albirex, who have come up against players who are roughly of the same build as themselves while playing in the S.League.
That will probably change against the Laotians, but Sugiyama, used to setting up a balanced game that makes extensive use of ground play as well as the occasional aerial ball, is keen not to change his formula.
“I don’t really think we have an advantage in height, knowing that the Laotian players are generally small in stature, even if we do have one or two tall players,” he said.
“We do not play to use our height, as that is not important for us.
“We would like to win on Saturday so we can play Tampines Rovers in the next round, but we must win this one first.”