Written by: Ryan Low
Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League defending champions Albirex Niigata (S) are back to the summit after a 2-0 win over Hougang United at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday night.
It was a closely-fought game in the first half, but Albirex managed to prevail through a Tsubasa Sano double in the second half.
There was a lack of clear-cut chances in the first 45 minutes, with the first real chance after just 38 minutes when Albirex captain Shuto Inaba saw his excellently-struck 20-yard volley turned around the post by Hougang custodian Khairulhin Khalid.
Hougang were content to sit back, but the White Swans broke their resistance in the 56th minute with Sano punishing a lax Hougang backline by nodding home Inaba’s right-wing cross.
White Swans should have added more goals, but Khairulhin kept them at bay with a series of impressive saves – most notably denying substitute Ryoya Motoda and Ryota Nakai in quick succession.
The Cheetahs head coach Philippe Aw threw on Afiq Noor and Azhar Sairudin for Lionel Tan and Nurhilmi Jasni to add more impetus into the attacking third, but the Cheetahs could not find a breakthrough.
Japanese playmaker Fumiya Kogure had a try from range, but the shot lacked power to trouble Albirex goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa.
Albirex eventually sealed the three points on 89th minute, with Sano tapping home Hiroyoshi Kamata’s cutback from close range for his fifth goal of the season as he rubbed off the disappointment of hitting the post moments earlier.
Albirex Niigata (S) Head Coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga: “Firstly it is the one-year anniversary of the Kumamoto earthquake, so I told the players to remember the pains of the people, play hard and try to win the game.
“The opponents were defensive and did not really attack us, so it is difficult for us in the first half. In the second half, we made some adjustments in terms of positioning and we were able to penetrate and score two.
“The players worked very hard, but I think they can still play better because I feel they have not really performed to what they’re capable of.”
Hougang United Head Coach Philippe Aw: “We’re struggling to create chances now. We’re missing Iqbal Hussain and Fareez Farhan in attack, that’s affecting us. Both guys have speed and ability to shoot. When things are not going well, we need a joker upfront to change things.
“Pablo’s struggling to adapt to how we want to play our football. In training, we’re coaching him to make certain runs and link-up plays. We certainly expect so much more from him as a foreign signing. We’ll continue to coach him and hopefully he fits in soon.
“To get zero points from three games (after the international break) is disappointing, but we’ll continue to find out solutions to change things.”
Albirex Niigata (S): Yosuke Nozawa (GK), Tomoki Menda, Takuya Akiyama, Naofumi Tanaka, Shuto Inaba (C), Ryota Nakai (Koki Sato 90’), Hiroyoshi Kamata, Tsubasa Sano (Rui Kumada 90’), Kento Nagasaki, Shoichiro Sakamoto (Ryuya Motoda 61’), Yasutaka Yanagi
Hougang United: Khairulhin Khalid (GK), Ali Hudzaifi (Ariyan Shamsuddin Malik 79’), Atsushi Shirota, Pablo Rodriguez, Fumiya Kogure, Nazrul Nazari, Fabian Kwok, Syahiran Miswan, Nurhilmi Jasni (C) (Azhar Sairudin 72’), Lionel Tan (Afiq Noor 72’), Zulfahmi Arifin