SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE
Albirex Niigata v Home United
Jurong East Stadium, 8.30pm
Close to the halfway mark of the inaugural Singapore Premier League (SPL) season, Albirex Niigata are already running away with the title.
The Japanese side, dishing out a brand of slick passing football combined with high pressing, have set a record of 11 straight wins since the campaign began, notching a maximum 33 points as they lead closest rivals Tampines Rovers by 14 points.
The White Swans also have the SPL's best scoring and defensive record (36 goals and seven conceded). The previous best start was made by Warriors FC a decade ago when they began the 2008 campaign with eight consecutive wins on their way to the S-League title.
Hougang United coach Philippe Aw thinks that Albirex are in a class of their own because of their exemplary work ethic.
He said: "Everybody works hard together and the moment they lose the ball, the whole team run back to regain possession. There is no comparison, none of the other teams can match them for hard work.
"Technically, they are good. They keep the ball well but, most of all, they have so much desire to do well. They are young players who come from Japan and they are hungry to carve out a career for themselves."
Home United will attempt to be the first SPL side to take points off Albirex when the two clubs meet at Jurong East Stadium tonight.
Protectors coach Aidil Sharin is also aware of the hunger and discipline the White Swans possess.
He said: "The Albirex players have nothing to worry about apart from football. They live together, eat together and bond together.
"It also helps that in the minds of the Albirex players, all they want to do is to play well and win a new contract. This motivates them to get better and better."
But Home have a mounting injury list to worry about. Frenchman Sirina Camara suffered a probable anterior cruciate ligament tear in the Protectors' 4-1 win over the Young Lions on Wednesday.
Reliable left-back Juma'at Jantan fractured his right leg last week in a friendly game with National Football League club Jungfrau Punggol. Attacking midfielder Fazli Ayob faces another eight weeks of recovery from an ankle operation.
But not every Albirex victory is an easy one. They were limited to a 1-0 win over Hougang last month.
Aw recalled: "We were expected to get whacked. So, instead of sitting back... we decided to take the game to them. I think they were surprised that we attacked them and we certainly ruffled them."
Similarly, Tampines Rovers coach Jurgen Raab feels Fortress Albirex is not impregnable, despite his team losing 2-1 and 4-3 to the White Swans this season.
He said: "We were always a bit unlucky against Albirex. Our fourth goal was wrongly disallowed (when Tampines lost 4-3). We have proved that we are on the same level as them.
"The fixtures are not ideal as they have played 11 and we have played nine, that gives us additional pressure. All teams should play on the same weekend to create an exciting championship."
The German, however, admitted that the title is Albirex's to lose.
Albirex head coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga said: "Our strength lies in the players who work hard without being satisfied with the results."
On his record-breaking campaign, he added: "Nothing in particular, I just prepare for the 12th game."