Match Of The Week

Football: Training their sights on the S-League title

Albirex Niigata coach Naoki Naruo (centre) conducting training at the Jurong East Stadium. His eye for detail has been cited as a reason why Albirex are on the brink of completing an unprecedented treble this season.
Albirex Niigata coach Naoki Naruo (centre) conducting training at the Jurong East Stadium. His eye for detail has been cited as a reason why Albirex are on the brink of completing an unprecedented treble this season.ST PHOTO: DON CHI

Albirex put in extra time on pitch as they seek to take a big step to the league crown

S-LEAGUE

Warriors FC v Albirex Niigata Jalan Besar, 7.45pm StarHub Ch112/205 & 76.25MHz

It is 11.30am at Jurong East Stadium on a Wednesday morning and Albirex Niigata's players are training all over the pitch.

At one end, reserve goalkeeper Eita Kasagawa is collecting crosses lofted into the box. Near the opposite corner, a few players are doing exercises with the ball.

In the middle, more players are pinging the ball across the width of the pitch with their weaker feet.

It seems like a normal scene at a football club's training session. Except training ended an hour ago, with the heat turning from sweltering to scorching.

Yet the players are eagerly practising ahead of tonight's S-League tie against Warriors FC at the Jalan Besar Stadium. Such a strong work ethic, according to coach Naoki Naruo, is a big reason why Albirex are top of the S-League with 47 points, seven ahead of closest rivals Tampines Rovers with four games remaining.

Win the next two games, and Albirex, who joined the S-League in 2004, will clinch their first league title regardless of how the Stags fare.

They could even win the title if they beat Warriors and Tampines lose to Brunei DPMM tomorrow.

"The most important thing is that the players want to improve themselves. They want to make the step up, and if they keep improving, the titles will come," said Naruo.

The White Swans are soaring and are on the cusp of winning an unprecedented treble this season. They won the League Cup in July and will face Tampines in the Singapore Cup final on Oct 29.

They got to this stage playing an eye-catching game of pass-and-move, with their superior fitness and technique shining throughout the season.

Said Naruo, who is in his second stint as Albirex trainer, having also coached them during the 2009 season: "We want to show that our players might be smaller but that we can also win the title.

"This season, I've been trying to bring the best out of the players with my tactics and also identify weaknesses in Singapore football."

When asked what these weaknesses are, the wily tactician laughed and said: "I can't say."

Captain Kento Nagasaki, in his fourth season for the club, pointed to Naruo's eye for detail as another reason for the team's fine form.

The midfielder said: "He prepares us well, always analysing the opponents' weaknesses and telling us how to play. He also communicates very well, and knows when to be strict and when to be friendly. So the team spirit is very strong, even among players and the coaching staff."

A sign of the camaraderie: During the interview, two unsuspecting players had ice-cold water dumped on them, as those watching fell over laughing.

The merrymaking has to be curtailed slightly against the Warriors, one of only three teams to have beaten Albirex this term. They won 2-0 in March and lost 2-3 in June.

Nagasaki, who could play his 100th S-League game tonight, added: "We might be able to win the S-League title with this game and I will do my best to win this.

"If we can show what we've been doing all season, then we can be confident (of winning)."

Naruo agreed. He added: "It will be a difficult game. The key is to score the first goal.

"We are so close to the title, with only four games left. Let's go."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2016, with the headline 'Training their sights on the title'. Print Edition | Subscribe