S-League: New-look Albirex Niigata have high hopes for 2018 season

Albirex players celebrating their Community Shield title and three S-League points, after last year's 2-1 win over Tampines.
Albirex players celebrating their Community Shield title and three S-League points, after last year's 2-1 win over Tampines.THE NEW PAPER FILE PHOTO

All but one of their 21-man squad will be aged 23 or younger, but two-time defending champions Albirex Niigata will still kick off the new S-League season brimming with confidence.

The Football Association of Singapore released the 2018 S-League fixtures on Thursday and the Japanese side are all pumped up for their season-opener, which also serves as the Community Shield match, against Tampines Rovers on March 31 at the National Stadium.

Led by reigning Coach of the Year Kazuaki Yoshinaga, the White Swans made a clean sweep of all four local trophies - the S-League, Singapore Cup, League Cup and Community Shield - in the last two seasons.

Albirex general manager Koh Mui Tee told The Straits Times: "It's our toughest challenge yet, but we have high expectations for our young team. We began training on Feb 5, earlier than we usually do, and we have been doing double sessions.

"There are gaps to fill after losing the likes of Kento Nagasaki, Shuto Inaba and Tsubasa Sano.

"We kept just goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa and vice-captain Hiroyoshi Kamata, so it's like a brand-new team. But I believe we will still be competitive."

Due to new rulings, Albirex have nine Under-21 and nine U-23 Japanese players, one over-23 Japanese player (Nozawa is 38) and two U-23 Singaporean footballers - goalkeeper Shahul Rayyan and playmaker Adam Swandi.

  • S-LEAGUE OPENING FIXTURES

  • MARCH 31

    Albirex Niigata v Tampines Rovers 5.30pm, National Stadium

  • APRIL 4

    Young Lions v Hougang United 7.45pm, Jalan Besar Stadium

  • Home United v Balestier Khalsa 7.45pm, Bishan Stadium

  • Geylang International v Warriors FC 7.45pm, Bedok Stadium

Most of the Japanese newcomers will play professional football for the first time in Singapore - 10 of them are straight out of high school or university, while four are from the Japan Soccer College.

Koh admitted it will be tough to replace 30-goal striker Sano, who signed with J2League's Roasso Kumamoto, but added they have a "secret weapon" lined up.

On the other hand, Tampines will be keen to avenge their 1-2 defeat by Albirex in last year's Community Shield.

National players Izwan Mahbud, Hafiz Sujad and Shahdan Sulaiman have left for the Thai and Malaysian leagues, but flying wingers Jordan Webb and Ryutaro Megumi are fit again and they could re-sign defender Madhu Mohana to boost their defence.

Tampines striker Khairul Amri said: "We feel fit and ready to kick off the S-League season.

"Albirex have dominated in the last two years and they will be tough opponents, but these are the games we need to win if we want to be champions. We want to get off to a good start."

With the AFF Suzuki Cup kicking off on Nov 8, the last round of S-League fixtures is scheduled for the Oct 20-21 weekend, with the possibility of a title decider as the Big Four play on the Sunday - Warriors v Albirex at Choa Chu Kang and Tampines v Home United at Our Tampines Hub.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2018, with the headline 'New-look Albirex have high hopes'. Print Edition | Subscribe