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League Cup: League form means nothing for Sugiyama

Muhd Khalis Rifhan

Albirex players march out
Photography courtesy of Albirex Niigata (Singapore)

Albirex Niigata (Singapore) head into their StarHub League Cup title defence loftily perched at the top of the S.League standings, making them firm favourites to succeed in their mission.

But it is always a different ball game when it comes to a cup competition, where losing even one game is often enough to kill anyone’s hopes of reaching the finish line in one piece.

It is a point White Swans coach Koichi Sugiyama would know very well, having steered his side to their first piece of silverware in Singapore last season.

“League position has no meaning when it comes to a cup competition,” he stressed.

“We may lose a game or two but still win the league. But it’s not the case with a cup competition.

“Our club’s giving the same priority and importance to both the S.League and the League Cup. As professional footballers, we should go for titles in all the competitions that we take part in.”

And it is with this hunger for more trophies that will drive Sugiyama and his charges on, as they head into their opening Group B fixture against Balestier Khalsa this Friday evening.

While Albirex are gunning for glory on two fronts, the League Cup represents Balestier’s only realistic shot at silverware, as they fall well short of the pace in the S.League title race.

They are nine full points behind their Japanese hosts for this weekend outing, and with only seven games remaining in their campaign, expecting to wipe out the gap would surely be asking for too much.

That said, teams no longer in the title running will tend to up their ante in pursuit of what might possibly their best chance of getting any silverware for the season, and this thought caught Sugiyama’s imagination as he prepared his charges for the game at Jurong East.

“This cup is also a good chance for both Balestier and especially Geylang United to win at a title this season, and I think they will want to win against us too,” he said of both his Group B opponents.

“We should play our philosophy and put out a good performance and the result will come. That is all I ask from my players.”

Central to the White Swans’ playing philosophy is the mental quality of patience, as they have often taken their time building up attacks through the industrious running of Atsushi Shimono and the sharp eyes of Musashi Okuyama.

Unsurprisingly, the duo got a mention from Sugiyama as he briefed on the state of his playing staff.

“We not only have a full squad with no big physical injuries, we are also mentally fit and focused for the game against Balestier,” reported the reigning MIKASA Coach of the Year.

“All the players are feeling confident and players like Shimono and Okuyama, despite having played in most our league matches, do not look tired during training. Both of them are ready for the next game.

“The past is nothing; I don’t want to think about the success we had last year in the League Cup. I am the type of person that thinks about the present.

“But although we have a different set of players this year, the Albirex philosophy in football remains the same, and I like this philosophy.”

As Sugiyama took out his tactical board to share on his philosophy, his brimming confidence was not hard to detect.

But confidence is also high in their opponents’ camp, as Balestier had just returned to winning ways against Woodlands Wellington in the league one week earlier.

That result snapped a poor run that had seen them lose three games on the trot, including a 0-3 crushing at the hands of mid-table rivals Hougang United, and the timing could not be better for Darren Stewart and his charges.

Montenegrin striker Zdravko Dragicevic got his first goal for the Tigers along the way, before proceeding to set his skipper Paul Cunningham up for the decisive nail in the Rams’ coffin.

The importance of the mid-season signing’s contribution was not lost on Balestier assistant coach Kevin Wee, who was full of praise for the man after the game.

Wee express belief that the goal in particular will help to give Dragicevic more confidence in himself, which can only mean there will be more goals to come for the shot-shy Tigers.

One man who certainly wants to play a greater part in Balestier’s League Cup is wingback Poh Yi Feng, who has received a surprise national team call-up by Singapore coach Radojko Avramovic.

The 25-year-old may have seen more time on the bench than on the field, but this has never deterred him from giving his best when called upon by Stewart to either support the attack or provide critical cover at rightback.

“I usually come on as a second-half substitute and when the team is winning,” shared Poh.

“But I knew that I have to give my best so as not to let the team down. I am here to defend the team’s lead in the game.”

Poh added that everyone in the team was upbeat about riding on their victory over Woodlands to make a positive impression at Jurong East.

“The morale of the team is high, especially after the win against Woodlands Wellington,” he enthused.

“After a few losses, it’s always hard to get back to winning ways, but with this win, we aim to continue the good form in the League Cup too.

“We definitely want to do well in this competition and win the cup if possible.”

No small boast for a side yet to win any silverware since the S.League’s inception in 1996, but Poh and his teammates need only look their Friday opponents in the eye for inspiration.

The game may seem to tilt towards the White Swans as far as any casual observer is concerned, but take nothing away from the Tigers, who are quite capable of seeing off any challenge on their day.

  • League Cup
  • Albirex Niigata
  • Balestier Khalsa