Football: Albirex not throwing in the towel just yet; aim for goals galore in final game

Albirex Niigata’s Kiyoshiro Tsuboi (right) during a training session on Oct 8, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Goals will be the order of the day for Albirex Niigata when they take to the pitch against fifth-placed Tanjong Pagar United at the Jurong East Stadium on Sunday (Oct 10) evening.

Fail to score, and their hopes of a fifth domestic title in six seasons go up in smoke.

Even if they find the net, it may not be enough.

Trailing to Singapore Premier League (SPL) leaders Lion City Sailors on goal difference, Albirex have to better their rivals' result against Balestier Khalsa - which will be played concurrently - by a margin of five in their own game.

With that in mind, the White Swans might be tempted to wonder if they would have avoided this scenario had they not missed their chief scorer for a third of the season.

Kiyoshiro Tsuboi, signed on loan from Japanese top-tier club Tokushima Vortis, had scored 11 goals in his first 10 SPL games before a serious knee injury sidelined him for almost four months.

The 21-year-old picked up the injury in the 2-1 win over the Young Lions on May 15, and left the stadium that night on crutches.

On finding out the extent of his injury, Tsuboi said he was dispirited but added: "I had to move forward (quickly) and be positive, so I could focus on my rehabilitation… and contribute to the team after coming back."

Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi said the absence of an "important part of the team" who could "smell goals" made a big difference to his side. The statistics bear out.

In the 10 matches Tsuboi featured in before he got injured, Albirex scored an average of 2.5 goals per game. In the seven he missed, that average dipped to 2.14.

His absence was most crucially felt when the White Swans suffered a shock 2-1 reverse to Tanjong Pagar in August, which remains their only defeat this season.

With Tsuboi on the pitch in the first of three meetings this season in April, they won 6-0 as he grabbed a hat-trick.

Given he was on a purple patch when he got injured, watching from the sidelines as he recuperated was not easy.

"Every time I watched a match, in my mind I wanted to play (more and more)," said Tsuboi.

And even after returning to action, trying to rediscover his form has been equally difficult. Tsuboi has made three appearances off the bench since coming back from injury, but has yet to score in 120 minutes on the pitch. This included a 45-minute cameo in the goalless draw with Tampines Rovers on Sept 24.

That failure to collect three points against a Tampines side that had conceded 28 goals in seven games prior, shifted the balance of the title race in the Sailors' favour.

Albirex Niigata head coach Keiji Shigetomi overseeing a training session on Oct 8, 2021. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Upset once already by Tanjong Pagar this term, Tsuboi and his teammates are wary but also holding out hope they will get the goals and a favourable result in the Sailors' game, to pull off an improbable last-day comeback for the title.

Shigetomi vowed his players would give their maximum regardless of what happens.

Tsuboi added: "As everyone knows, we need to score many goals... nobody in the team has given up.

"Everyone understands what we can do, and our mood is good.

"I will give my everything I've been working for this year, on the pitch (against Tanjong Pagar) and I hope we will be able to finish with a good result."

If there ever was a time for the marksman to find his range again and make up for lost time, it is now.

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