White Swans Inch Closer To Title
Written by: Phoon Jia Hui
Albirex Niigata (S) ran out 3-0 winners over Balestier Khalsa at Toa Payoh Stadium on Thursday night to leave themselves within touching distance of a successful Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League title defence.
The victory saw the White Swans open up a nine-point lead at the top with two games remaining and they could seal their second successive S.League crown as early as this weekend if Tampines Rovers drop points against Garena Young Lions.
If the Stags claim maximum points against the developmental side however, Albirex will then officially retain their championship if they avoid defeat to Warriors FC at Jalan Besar Stadium next Friday.
Albirex dominated proceedings from the get-go and were unlucky not to have gone ahead after 10 minutes with Hiroyoshi Kamata lashing wide after Sano was foiled by the legs of Zaiful Nizam.
But there was no denying Sano three minutes later as he finished past Zaiful from close range after latching onto Ryota Nakai’s reverse pass for his 19th league goal.
Sano could have doubled the lead for the visitors on 17 minutes but saw his low shot from outside the box trickle wide.
Balestier tried to find a response but the closest they came to scoring was a Fadli Kamis header that went over just after the half-hour mark.
They would find themselves two goals down on 39 minutes when Kamata’s powerful shot slipped through the grasp of Zaiful before going into the back of the net.
The Tigers then nearly halved the deficit three minutes before the break but Aung Kyaw Naing’s header off Sheikh Abdul Hadi’s cross was kept out by a flying save from Yosuke Nozawa.
Albirex continued from where they left off after the restart with Tomoki Menda heading narrowly over off Kento Nagasaki’s corner on 57 minutes before Shoichiro Sakamoto fired over from a tight angle moments later.
Nagasaki could have gotten his name on the scoresheet in the 63rd minute but he drilled one straight at Zaiful off a cutback from the right.
Kazuaki Yoshinaga’s charges continued to threaten and an unmarked Tomoki Menda should have scored ten minutes later but somehow headed over from Nagasaki’s freekick delivery.
Albirex skipper Shuto Inaba then hit a firm grounder that Zaiful gathered easily in the 78th minute but it mattered little as Nakai made sure of the victory with a minute left on the clock.
After Sano’s effort had come off the crossbar, Nakai was on hand to fire home the rebound to complete the scoring.
With the result, Albirex remain on top of the standings with 56 points after 22 games while Balestier are still in seventh with 16 points from 23 matches.
Balestier Khalsa Head Coach Marko Kraljevic: “Albirex started aggressively with their direct football today which was something we didn’t expect as they are a team who usually plays passing football. We struggled in the first 20 minutes to get used to that.
“We were second best today, we lost out on many second balls and Albirex in one on one situations. But we tried to keep the shape, we didn’t give up and I hope the players will learn.”
Albirex Niigata (S) Head Coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga: “We had expected a difficult game tonight. Although it was not as difficult as we thought it'd be, I was not happy with the performance of the players. There was a drop into the accuracy of their passing which resulted in many misplaced passes. We also couldn’t up the tempo when we wanted to.
“The title is not 100% confirmed yet because there are still two games more. We still have a target of hitting 60 points and I’m confident we can achieve that.”
Balestier Khalsa: Zaiful Nizam (GK, C), Fadli Kamis, Hanafi Salleh, Sheikh Abdul Hadi, Ahmad Syahir, Tajeli Salamat, Huzaifah Aziz, Raihan Rahman (Shah Hirul 79’), Nanda Linn Kyaw Chit, Hazzuwan Halim (Rafiqin Kamal 66’), Aung Kyaw Naing (Fariz Faizal 79’)
Albirex Niigata (S): Yosuke Nozawa (GK), Tomoki Menda (Rui Kumada 88’), Yasutaka Yanagi, Takuya Akiyama, Naofumi Tanaka, Shoichiro Sakamoto (Ryuya Motoda 58’), Shuto Inaba (C), Hiroyoshi Kamata (Yuuki Yamanouchi 61’), Kento Nagasaki, Ryota Nakai, Tsubasa Sano