SINGAPORE – He narrowly missed out on the golden boot as the Singapore Premier League (SPL) season concluded on Friday, but Albirex Niigata forward Kodai Tanaka still had a huge smile as he lifted his first league championship after a 1-1 draw with Geylang International.
Fittingly, the 22-year-old was on the scoresheet at Our Tampines Hub as he ended the campaign with 33 goals, just two shy of Tampines Rovers striker Boris Kopitovic’s haul of 35.
The Japanese side finished on 59 points, two clear of defending champions Lion City Sailors, who beat Young Lions 2-1 at the Jalan Besar Stadium thanks to a double from Faris Ramli.
As the highest-placed local side, the Sailors earned a place in the 2023-24 AFC Champions League qualifier.
For Tanaka, the SPL trophy, not individual accolades, was all that mattered.
“We had a difficult time (at the start of the season), we improved, overcame difficulties and my teammates brought the ball forward for me to score, so it was a team effort,” he said.
“Even in a different position, what I was required to do was the same - it was to score. The position (as a wide attacker) was slightly different but I still managed to do my role.”
The White Swans were a constant threat on the Geylang goal but it was the Eagles who scored first - through Sime Zuzul’s spot kick in the 64th minute after Albirex defender Shogo Toyomura brought down Vincent Bezecourt in the box.
That lead lasted just 10 minutes. Masahiro Sugita exchanged a neat one-two with Kan Kobayashi before floating the ball into Tanaka’s path and his header restored parity.
He and Kopitovic had been tied on 31 goals earlier in October, but the Montenegrin’s back-to-back doubles in the Stags’ final two games - 5-3 and 4-3 victories over Albirex and Tanjong Pagar respectively - ultimately proved decisive.
Tanaka will take comfort from for his pivotal role in helping Albirex capture the 2022 SPL title, which they clinched on Oct 7 following a 4-2 win over the Sailors.
Albirex head coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga attributed Tanaka’s success to teamwork, saying: “Boris can score on his own but our boys are not like that - they combine and play together before we can score.”
With the Singapore Cup kicking off next Thursday, Albirex and Tanaka hope to continue their winning momentum as they eye another piece of silverware.
Tanaka said: “The goal is to win the Cup, so I want to score in order to do that for the team.”
There was plenty of optimism in the Geylang camp as well, after they leapfrogged Hougang United into fourth on goal difference - thanks to that precious point against the champions.
Head coach Noor Ali said: “The last game against Albirex, we were thrashed 8-2 and we still remember that. But the boys have responded to that and shown a lot of character through the whole season.
“It’s nice that we are competing with teams like Lion City Sailors and Albirex because that means we’ve shown progression after the first 10 games of the season.”