White Swans Grind Out Narrow Win
Written by: Phoon Jia Hui
Albirex Niigata (S) edged closer to retaining their Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League title after a narrow 1-0 victory over Hougang United at Jurong East Stadium on Thursday night.
Ryota Nakai’s strike ten minutes from time proved to be the difference with the result leaving the White Swans within touching distance of their second S.League championship.
Playing their first competitive match in almost three weeks, It was Albirex who were on top in the opening exchanges as they created a series of corners in search of a breakthrough.
The hosts nearly took the lead inside seven minutes but Tomoki Menda could only head straight at Hougang custodian Ridhuan Barudin.
The White Swans came close again ten minutes later when Menda’s right-wing cross found Ryota Nakai inside the box but the forward headed just over.
Hougang began to find their feet soon after and almost scored at the other end but Fumiya Kogure headed wide off Fairoz Hasan’s cross from the right.
Kogure’s night would end shortly after as he was replaced due to injury, with Azhar Sairudin coming on in his place.
The final chance of the half then fell to Iqbal Hussain on 40 minutes but the 24-year-old curled over from outside the box.
Albirex came out of the restart with much vigour and could have gone ahead but Nagasaki and Hiroyoshi Kamata were unable to put their efforts on target.
The Cheetahs then spurned a glorious opportunity to open the scoring in the 73rd minute when Fabian Kwok dummied Iqbal’s low cross into the path of Azhar who saw his low shot kept out by the legs of Nozawa.
At the other end two minutes later, Delwinder Singh came to the rescue of Hougang when he tracked back in time to clear Tsubasa Sano’s shot off the line.
But there was no denying Albirex as they broke the deadlock in the 80th minute.
After Hougang failed to deal with a left-wing cross, an unmarked Nakai was on hand to slot home at the far post for his tenth goal of the season.
The visitors tried to muster a response after falling behind and could have restored parity but Atsushi Shirota headed over off Iqbal’s cross two minutes from time.
Albirex substitute Rui Kumada nearly got his name on the scoresheet in stoppage time but fired straight at Ridhuan in an one-on-one situation.
It mattered little however, as the defending champions held on for their 27th straight win in all competitions at Jurong East with their last defeat there coming in November 2015.
The result leaves Hougang in sixth with 26 points from 21 matches while Albirex are now nine points clear of second-placed Tampines Rovers having played a game more.
Albirex Niigata (S) Head Coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga: “The first half was bad for us but we raised the tempo in the second. We tried to tire the opponents and eventually got the goal we wanted.
“I was not surprised by Hougang’s tactics, nor was I overly concerned by their tactics because we were just concerned about getting one goal to win the game.
“I told the players before the game that they have come a long way and improved a lot. It is because of their performances that they are in this good position. They have just have to work hard for our remaining matches and good form to finish the job."
Hougang United Head Coach Philippe Aw: “The boys gave their 100% and tried to make things difficult for Albirex to retain the title but we fell short. Hopefully someone else can do better.
“We came here with a game plan, a different formation and set-up and I felt we coped well for most parts. We did well against the Albirex attacks but that one occasion we didn’t and got punished for that.
“It was disappointing because we had the chances to score but they had theirs as well. If we had scored from our chances, it would have made things different. We have played good football so many times this season but didn’t score. Albirex would need to chase the goal so it might work in our favour. Congratulations to Albirex, they did what we failed to do - which was to score.”
Albirex Niigata (S): Yosuke Nozawa (GK), Tomoki Menda, Yasutaka Yanagi, Takuya Akiyama, Naofumi Tanaka, Shoichiro Sakamoto, Shuto Inaba (C), Hiroyoshi Kamata (Ryuya Motoda 74’), Kento Nagasaki, Ryota Nakai (Rui Kumada 90’), Tsubasa Sano Hougang United:
Ridhuan Barudin (GK), Nazrul Nazari, Delwinder Singh, Atsushi Shirota, Faiz Salleh, Fabian Kwok (Nurhilmi Jasni 86’), Zulfahmi Arifin, Syahiran Miswan, Fairoz Hasan (Antoine Viterale 81’), Fumiya Kogure (C) (Azhar Sairudin 34’), Iqbal Hussain