Football: Japanese trio providing the bite in Balestier Khalsa's attack

Balestier Khalsa's Japanese attackers (from left) Ryoya Taniguchi, Kuraba Kondo, and Shuhei Hoshino. ST PHOTO: THADDEUS ANG

SINGAPORE - With Shuhei Hoshino's outgrown locks, Ryoya Taniguchi's blonde streaks and Kuraba Kondo's frizzy gold hair, Balestier Khalsa's Japanese trio are impossible to miss.

Their fine attacking form - they have scored eight out of the Tigers' nine goals in five games - is also hard to ignore ahead of Tuesday's (April 5) Singapore Premier League match against Hougang United.

Restored as a No. 9 after playing in a deeper role last season, Hoshino - nicknamed Jumbo because he used to weigh 95kg when he was 15 - has scored thrice this season and is hoping to be the heavyweight he was when he plundered 19 goals to win the Golden Boot and league title with Albirex Niigata in 2018.

The 26-year-old said: "I can score and assist, but I like to play as the striker more. After a few years in Singapore, I have learnt some English, but it is definitely easier to communicate in Japanese, and that's why Ryoya, Kuraba and I have combined well."

Behind Hoshino, Taniguchi and Kondo can play either on the wings or in the middle.

Taniguchi, who has two goals and three assists this season, prefers the No. 10 role. The 22-year-old said: "I will play where the coach wants me to, but it is important that we can control play and produce through passes in the middle."

Meanwhile, Kondo, who produced eight goals and four assists despite starting just thrice in his 16 appearances for Albirex last year, has three goals and one assist this season. Like his compatriots, he has played the full 450 minutes so far this term.

The 19-year-old former Japan youth international said: "My strength is to initiate attacks, and my mentality remains, I'm ready to contribute no matter when I play."

Along with teammate and Serbian defender Ensar Bruncevic, they live together in an apartment in Bishan, and their friendship and understanding are obvious from their banter.

When asked who is the best cook among them, Taniguchi nominated his oyakodon (rice bowl with chicken, egg and onion), only to be rebuffed by a straight-faced Kondo with a deadpan "no".

The payback came in the form of the revelation that Kondo mostly stays at home to sleep and talk on the phone when Hoshino and Taniguchi go out to exercise and cycle, as they break into laughter.

Right now, their chemistry and goals are the source of optimism for Balestier, who have struggled defensively, conceding a league-high 20 goals.

The trio have scored eight out of the Tigers' nine goals in five games. ST PHOTO: THADDEUS ANG

Balestier coach Akbar Nawas said: "Our game model, with Jumbo as the No. 9 and the other two Japanese breaking the line, enables them to score and they have done their part.

"But we are still not cohesive enough in how we defend. Perhaps 18 out of the 20 goals were giveaways - our marking was too loose, and our covering was poor. Our local players can play fluid football, but they do it only in spurts. They need to be braver and more confident about what they want to do with the ball.

"We have a new philosophy to build play from the back, but we cannot use the process as an excuse when we lose games. Of course, we would like to win and not concede, but I'm realistic enough to know that things don't change drastically overnight. We will not park the bus, and what I want is for us to gradually improve defensively."


Geylang International v Albirex Niigata (April 5)

The Eagles are on a five-match losing run against the White Swans with an aggregate score of 13-1, but they have actually played some good football this season with Vincent Bezecourt and Takahiro Tezuka pulling the strings from midfield.

Geylang will miss suspended midfielder Khairul Hairie, and they need to find out how to keep their leads, after allowing Hougang and Tampines to come from behind and win. It is the same story for Albirex, as they led against Lion City Sailors and Hougang, only to end up with 1-1 draws.

Tampines Rovers v Tanjong Pagar (April 6)

After a poor and somewhat unlucky start to the season, in which they collected just one point from two games, Tampines are buoyed by a 7-1 thumping of Hougang and a 3-2 comeback win over Geylang. A home win will keep them within reach of the top, as they still have a game in hand on the leaders.

But they will do well not to write off table-toppers Tanjong Pagar - who continue to confound skeptics- and extend their unbeaten start to five matches. Their never-say-die mentality is exemplified by their seven second-half goals, which is only one short of Albirex's league-high tally.

Young Lions v Lion City Sailors (April 6)

There have been question marks over the performances of the big-spending Sailors, but they have the league's best defensive record, conceding only three goals in five games, and are only one point from the summit, ready to pounce if Tanjong Pagar slip up.

The Young Lions have shown flashes of brilliance in their build-up play in narrow defeats by Balestier and Tanjong Pagar, but with just one win and two draws in their last 19 encounters against the Sailors and their predecessors Home United, another upset would be a tall order, especially as key right-back Zulqarnaen Suzliman is a doubt with a hamstring pull.

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