Match Of The Week

Football: After a long break, Albirex Niigata are raring to go in Singapore Premier League title defence

Albirex Niigata FC midfielder Zamani Zamri celebrates after scoring the only goal for his team against Hougang United FC in a 2-1 loss on July 13, 2019.
Albirex Niigata FC midfielder Zamani Zamri celebrates after scoring the only goal for his team against Hougang United FC in a 2-1 loss on July 13, 2019.PHOTO: ST FILE

Japanese side use three-week break to analyse errors, confident of catching leaders DPMM

SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

Tampines Rovers v Albirex Niigata

Our Tampines Hub, 5.30pm


It has been three weeks since Albirex Niigata last played a Singapore Premier League game, but it was a timely break for the defending champions who had a disappointing run before that.

They conceded goals in the closing minutes to lose four crucial points in their last two matches, a 3-3 draw with Home United and a 1-0 loss to Geylang International.

The Japanese side are fourth on 31 points, seven behind league leaders Brunei DPMM (38 points), but have two games in hand.

Now they face three away games in 14 days, starting today with third-placed Tampines Rovers before Hougang United and Warriors FC next week.

Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi said: "We've identified the problems and the last few weeks have been targeted at rectifying them and working towards our goal to win on Sunday."

He identified the lack of goals as a problem for the White Swans, who have scored 27 times this year. Only Geylang (25) and the Young Lions (13) have scored fewer.

In the Home draw, they led 3-1 with 11 minutes to go but allowed their opponents to grab a point.

Skipper Kyoga Nakamura put it down to inexperience. The squad consists mainly of Under-23 players with the exception of goalkeepers Kengo Fukudome and Hyrulnizam Juma'at, both 32.

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They retained only four members of last year's league and Singapore Cup-winning team owing in part to the new rules this year that require two Singaporeans to start their matches. They signed six locals in all, including three students.

Nakamura, 23, said: "We need to be stronger mentally when we're leading; we shouldn't be overwhelmed by the opponents and must control the game better.

"They are very young and when they get beaten, they get deflated easily but, as we go game by game, we've been able to get stronger."

It has been a difficult campaign for Albirex after their recent golden period of success - three league titles, four Singapore Cups and three League Cups since 2015.

Last year, they went undefeated for the entire season under former coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga, who was at the club for two seasons.

This term, they have lost four times after 17 games but Shigetomi is confident his men can secure a fourth straight championship by winning their remaining seven games, which include the other title challengers Hougang, DPMM and Tampines.

He said: "Our target from the beginning has been to win and we don't want to break that trend. The players have been working hard so we will try our best and hopefully we can win the title."

Tampines were also tripped up by Geylang, 2-1 on Wednesday, but Stags coach Gavin Lee insisted they are still in the title race.

He said: "The good thing is that the window between games is short and we don't have time to feel bad about ourselves. We get to bounce back and there is no better way than to do it against Albirex, one of our rivals.

"It's not like the title is going to be decided this weekend or the next. There are five games to go and the differences are not big so anything can happen."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 18, 2019, with the headline 'Rested Albirex Raring To Go'. Print Edition | Subscribe