The champions

Relentless Albirex want it all again

Albirex Niigata players Hiroyoshi Kamata (far left) and Taku Morinaga preparing for their season opener against Tampines Rovers at Jurong East Stadium on Wednesday. Morinaga, 22, is a forward and has been set a target of 20 goals this season by his coach
Albirex Niigata players Hiroyoshi Kamata (far left) and Taku Morinaga preparing for their season opener against Tampines Rovers at Jurong East Stadium on Wednesday. Morinaga, 22, is a forward and has been set a target of 20 goals this season by his coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga.PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

Japanese side eye another sweep with same formula, throw down gauntlet to local clubs

On the Jurong East Stadium pitch, three Albirex Niigata players were playing a little game behind head coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga.

The challenge was this: Chip the ball onto the crossbar of the goal, then volley the rebound home.

It took a while, but they all succeeded - multiple times. And this was at 11.30am, after a 90-minute high-intensity session that started at 9am under the blazing sun.

It is no wonder the Japanese side have won every title in Singapore football for two years running.

Their methods are an open secret: high fitness levels, high-intensity training, and highly motivated players with good technical ability.

There are 19 new faces in their 21-man squad - including Singaporean pair Adam Swandi and Shahul Rayyan - but it has been the same old Albirex this year, and their hope is to end the season in similar fashion.

But first, they intend to open it in style when they face Tampines Rovers at the National Stadium for the Great Eastern Community Shield today. It also doubles as the opening fixture of the rebranded Great Eastern-Hyundai Singapore Premier League (SPL).

  • Watching the match

  • TICKETS

    Tickets for today's Great Eastern Community Shield are priced at $4 (adults) and $1 (concession) and are available from Sports Hub Tix.

    From Monday, Great Eastern-Hyundai Singapore Premier League tickets will be available on www.fas.org.sg/tickets and also via the mySPL platform (www.mySPL.live).

    To commemorate the curtain-raiser, the first 2,000 fans at the gates will receive a free "golden ticket", with redemption starting from 3pm.

  • LIVE STREAMING

    The FAS, in partnership with The Straits Times, mycujoo and Eleven Sports, will provide unprecedented online coverage of the SPL matches.

    Over 80 per cent of the SPL matches will be made available on mycujoo (mycujoo.tv/fasingapore), as well as the Eleven Sports Facebook page.

    Selected matches will be simultaneously streamed on the ST Facebook page (www.facebook.com/TheStraitsTimes). Live streaming of the Community Shield will start at 5pm.

"We want to win everything again," said Yoshinaga, when quizzed about targets. "There are no like-for-like replacements for key players like (playmaker) Kento Nagasaki and (31-goal 2017 top scorer) Tsubasa Sano, but there will be no change to the playing style.

"It will be difficult for us, but I'm excited at the potential that this new team have, and I believe we will get better as the season goes on. And, if we play to our current potential, we will win on Saturday."

Two of the trio playing the crossbar game have been identified by observers as key players to Albirex's title defence. They are both registered as forwards: the unmissable Taku Morinaga who stands at 1.53m, and the 1.68m Kenya Takahashi, who has been identified as a free-kick specialist, but has been deployed at left-back thus far.

"I don't choose players based on height, but on ability," said Yoshinaga, who believes neither has lived up to his potential yet.

CONFIDENT CHAMPS

I'm excited at the potential... if we play to our current potential, we will win on Saturday.

KAZUAKI YOSHINAGA, Albirex coach, on his team's chances in the Community Shield.

Yoshinaga revealed the 22-year-old Takahashi - whom he coached when the latter was a high school student - was a target for J-League giants Kashima Antlers. The nippy Morinaga, also 22, has been set a target of 20 goals this season.

Hiroyoshi Kamata, one of two players who have been retained by the club - along with veteran goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa - believes that this team are not yet ready to win everything, but "will get better as the season goes on".

Said the 1.65m midfielder: "We are obviously a younger team this year, but we are strong in attack."

Tampines coach Jurgen Raab already knows this. He has watched the White Swans three times in pre-season games.

"If we play with fear and wait in defence, we will have no chance. We want to be active and aggressive, not give them space to enforce their style of play," he said.

"They are organised, very fit - they can run for 120 minutes - and transition very quickly into attack. That's why they've been winning everything."

Key players like Izwan Mahbud, Hafiz Sujad, Shahdan Sulaiman, Shakir Hamzah and Korean midfielder Son Yong Chan have left the club and defender Shannon Stephen is a long-term injury victim.

The impact is not lost on Raab, who said: "Those guys were half my first XI, and we are not at the level we were at last season, but I'm positive we'll get better. And hopefully we can stop Albirex on Saturday."

Not if Yoshinaga has his way.

"Every game is important because we want to win it all," he said.

"And we want to start the season with a win."

ALBIREX V TAMPINES

Today, 5.30pm, National Stadium

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2018, with the headline 'Relentless Albirex want it all again'. Print Edition | Subscribe