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League Cup: Holders Albirex start off with win

Paul Green

Albirex players celebrate
Photography courtesy of Albirex Niigata (Singapore)

Albirex Niigata (Singapore) maintained their recent run of good results by picking up a handy 2-0 win over keen rivals Balestier Khalsa in the opening StarHub League Cup Group B match at Jurong East Stadium on Friday evening.

Not only were the White Swans putting on their best again for the 534 fans that came to see them, but Yasuhiro Yamakoshi, their goal machine of the moment, brought back memories of last season’s star Shotaro Ihata with two wonderful goals to add to his rapidly-growing tally.

So good were his strikes that opposition spokesman Kevin Wee, the Balestier team’s assistant coach, said his team had been beaten by two ‘excellent’ goals, despite giving a good performance themselves.

It was no mean feat considering this game was during the fasting month, when some of the Tigers’ Muslim players may not have been at their best.

The game took some time to get going in earnest, with the scoreboard blank at half-time.

Then a good sequence of passing by the Albirex players as they moved inexorably through the Balestier half of the field, passing the ball from player to player, led to some apparent paralysis in the visiting defensive ranks as the Japanese boys seemed to put their opponents into a trance.

Sho Kamimura fed the ball to Takeshi Ito down the left channel, and the latter was able to get to the byline easily before cutting the ball across to the far post.

Steaming in, and not needing any special invitation to play his part, was the White Swans’ leading scorer Yamakoshi, who lashed the ball home with ease.

That was with three minutes gone in the second half, and thus did the game fully come to life.

It was by no means a dreary first half, though, and it must be said Balestier did not begin the game looking to sit back and stifle their way to a result.

Zulkiffli Hassim might have been alone up front at the start, but Zdravko Dragicevic and Park Kang Jin were tucked in right behind him, and with Ruhaizad Ismail and Shafuan Sutohmoh working hard to provide additional support, this was an industrious Tigers unit up front.

At the back, Zakariah Nerani was rarely troubled in the first half, though some profligate finishing by the Albirex players might have had something to do with that as well.

The hosts’ best chance in the opening period came from Yamakoshi, whose header from an Ito cross on 23 minutes was tipped over the bar by Zakariah, and a header from Shuhei Hotta flew just wide minutes earlier.

Syed Thaha offered something of a response on the half-hour mark when he lifted a useful ball over the Albirex defence for Zulkiffli to latch on to, but the front man tried to meet the ball first time instead of trying to approach goalkeeper Takuma Ito and beat him with placement.

It was perhaps no surprise that the eventual shot was a weak one that Ito was able to claim easily.

Balestier might have done better moments before half-time, however, when Park again played Zulkiffli through.

This time the nippy player tried to get the better of the goalkeeper from closer range, but Ito was alert and raced off his line to boot the ball clear.

No changes were made at half-time by either side and after some simple passing by the White Swans to keep the ball away from their opponents, Yamakoshi struck to telling effect.

After that Balestier were chasing the game far more, though they did go close on 75 minutes when Ruhaizad linked up with Dragicevic, who in turn fed Park.

The Korean’s shot was saved with an early intervention by Ito, who once again was very much on his toes and deserved commendation.

Yet the hosts’ second goal was so outstanding it deserved even more praise.

Yamakoshi was fed the ball by Atsushi Shimono down the left, and he duly took it towards the near post.

From there he conjured up something special, a tightly-angled shot more or less on the half-volley that rocked the net and left Zakariah helpless.

The game fell away a little after that as some niggling tackles and fouls went unpunished, and Balestier in particular showed their displeasure.

One two-footed tackle from Shimono warranted no more than a free kick and no caution, for instance, and some untidy scuffles broke out.

Wisely, the Tigers chose to replace two of their players who had felt the most aggrieved, a move clearly aimed at avoiding further cautions, seeing that they would be facing their second game on Monday against Geylang United.

Leaving Yamakoshi on for the full 90 minutes, as he had done in the team’s last game, Albirex coach Koichi Sugiyama must now feel that the big No.9 has now done enough to deserve a starting – and ending – berth in his team.

“I have a lot of respect for my players after six games this month,” said the 40-year-old after deliberating for some time.

“Balestier began to play long balls in the second half and were looking a little tired. But we kept going, and I was very happy with the performance of my players.

“We will rest tomorrow and then start training for our second game against Geylang next week.

“We are playing the same way in the League Cup as we are in the League so we must continue to show this in every game from now on.”

At the other end, Wee, who also takes Balestier’s Prime League side under his wing, said in his brief remarks that his team had done well and that any knocks they received are all likely to clear up before Monday.

That includes a minor injury Ruhaizad picked up after clattering into the advertising boards in frustration.

Perhaps they can feel a little better about themselves with a useful victory over the Eagles, which can still take them through to the League Cup quarterfinals.

  • League Cup
  • Albirex Niigata
  • Balestier Khalsa