Albirex are all about style and substance
Albirex coach promises Japanese brand of football will be on show in tonight's final
BRUNEI DPMM FC v ALBIREX NIIGATA
(Tonight, 7.45pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz)
At the beginning of the season, few thought they could replicate the stellar form that saw them clinch a cup double last year.
A change in head coach, loss of key players and the numerous new additions seemed to suggest that they would need more time for things to click on the pitch.
But fast forward five months and Albirex Niigata have emphatically proven their detractors wrong.
The White Swans, who lost instrumental players such as Itsuki Yamada, Takahiro Saito, Rion Taki, Shun Inaba, Hikaru Mizuno and reigning S.League Player of the Year Fumiya Kogure before the season kicked off, are now gunning for an unprecedented Quadruple.
They already have the Community Shield under their belt, after overcoming Brunei DPMM 3-2 at the start of the term.
They are also in the semi-finals of the RHB Singapore Cup and hold a four-point lead at the top of the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League table.
Tonight, they will shift their focus to The New Paper League Cup final at the Jalan Besar Stadium, where they will attempt to beat DPMM and win the trophy for the second year running.
Albirex coach Naoki Naruo is expecting a stern test for his players though.
Above: Albirex coach Naoki Naruo
"DPMM are a team that defend well and are very strong on the counter-attack," he said, after his team's training session at the Jurong East Stadium yesterday.
"So I hope that we can hold and move the ball well, so that we don't suffer from their counter-attacks and I also hope that we can get the first goal, which will be very important in deciding the outcome of the match."
The 41-year-old also believes that if his charges win, it will spur them on for the remainder of their campaign.
"When the league action resumes (next week), our first match will also be against DPMM," he said. "So, it will be a big morale boost for us if we win tomorrow, for the rest of the S.League season and also for the Singapore Cup."
Naruo first coached Albirex in 2009, but success didn't come instantly, as his team finished in seventh place.
He returned to Japan a year later, coaching Grulla Morioka for five years, during which he masterminded the club's rise from the semi-professional Tohoku Soccer League to the J3 League.
He then came back to Singapore this season to take over from Tatsuya Okuyama, who guided Albirex through their best campaign in their 12 years of existence, winning the TNP League Cup and RHB Singapore Cup.
While Naruo admitted that there is pressure on him to reproduce the success of his predecessor, his experience at Morioka helped him deal with those expectations.
"After returning to Singapore, I feel I have unfinished business," he said.
"I want to show fans here the Japanese style of football.
"It is important to win, but it is also important to play well and dominate games .
"I want to lead the team to do even better than last season."
1 ATTACKING THREAT
Last year, they were heavily reliant on Atsushi Kawata for goals but, this season, Tatsuro Inui (above) has stepped up with 11 goals.
2 WING PROWESS
Albirex's wingbacks, especially Naofumi Tanaka on the left, bomb forward at every opportunity, which could cause DPMM real problems if their attacking players do not help out with the defence.
3 INDIVIDUAL BRILLIANCE
In a tight game like a final, one moment of magic could make the difference and Kawata, Inui and Kento Nagasaki are all capable of doing just that.
1 MISSING ANCHORMAN
Much of Albirex's success this season has been down to the midfield triangle of Nagasaki, Shuto Inaba and Masaya Jitozono (above), but the latter's suspension could work in DPMM's favour.
Albirex coach Naoki Naruo has not been afraid to tinker with his squad, with Kawata even having been deployed as a wingback, but you get the feeling he could be a wrong move away from a disaster.
3 LACK OF BENCH OPTIONS
It is no secret that Naruo mainly works around 14 main players.
Should Plan A not work tonight, he could struggle to come up with alternatives from the bench.
King Kawata key to White Swans' chances
He hollered at Shuto Inaba, pointing to the exact spot where he wanted the ball to be played before leaping like a salmon to outjump his marker, who happened to be the 1.91-metre tall Kazuki Mine, and thumped his header into the back of the net with unerring precision.
Albirex Niigata's 1.75-metre tall Atsushi Kawata drew applause and cheers of his teammates and coaches with his well-taken goal during the team's training session at the Jurong East Stadium yesterday.
More importantly, the 24-year-old highlighted his importance to the White Swans' Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League season so far with that one play.
The Hannan University graduate showed glimpses of his quality last year, playing as a winger, but could manage only 11 goals in all competitions during his debut campaign.
But Kawata has caught the attention with his new role up front this year, plundering an impressive 12 goals in the league to lead the scoring charts and has 17 in all competitions, including a stunning hat-trick against Tampines Rovers in The New Paper League Cup semi-final last week.
And he is eager to continue his fine vein of form when Albirex take on Brunei DPMM in the final of the League Cup tonight.
"As a team, we have confidence that we can win the game tomorrow," he told The New Paper.
"We know they will be difficult opponents and a win will surely give us more confidence and, personally, I am aiming to score so that I can help my team to win.
"Many people will be expecting us to defend our title tomorrow and we want to show them that we are a good team and we can do just that."
Possessing a lethal combination of speed, strength, aerial prowess, technique and an uncanny ability to find the back of the net, Kawata has been a nightmare for opposing defenders and goalkeepers.
Kawata, however, believes his teammates are the ones who should be receiving the plaudits for his performances this season.
"Basically, the team we had last year were more defensive compared to this year's team which have more offensive players," he said.
"This has helped me to score more goals than last year, because we have good wingers who can deliver accurate crosses and passes which make it easier for me to score.
The Osaka native also explained that he will not be entirely satisfied with winning an unprecedented quadruple, as the striker also has his sights set on the Golden Boot.
"Of course, my main priority is to make sure that I help my team win in every match that we play," he said.
"But I am also looking to end the season as the top scorer and score in as many games as I can." - G BUVANKUMAAR