Albirex favourites to lift The New Paper Cup League Cup
Red-hot White Swans set up all-foreign final with Brunei DPMM as local clubs crash out
ALBIREX NIIGATA 4
(Atsushi Kawata 32, 67, 72, Tatsuro Inui 87)
TAMPINES ROVERS 0
About half an hour after the final whistle last night, Albirex Niigata striker Atsushi Kawata was spotted zipping out of Jurong East Stadium on a kick scooter, making his way back to the condo nearby where he lives with other members of the team.
He might well have had wheels on the soles of his boots when Albirex met Tampines Rovers in the semi-final of The New Paper League Cup last night, because the Stags defence simply could not catch him.
The 23-year-old fired home a hat-trick as the White Swans ran out 4-0 winners over a severely depleted Tampines side, booking a date with Brunei DPMM in Saturday's all-foreign final at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Kawata's sparkling performance underscored a polished all-round performance by the Japanese outfit, who looked in a different league at times.
They were so good Tampines coach Akbar Nawas had no qualms backing them on Saturday.
When asked which side were favourites, Akbar - whose side went down 2-1 to DPMM in a TNP League Cup group-stage game last Thursday - said: "Albirex, straight up.
"Form-wise, and also because their work ethic is fantastic.
"They defend as a team, attack as a team and they work very hard in transition.
"But DPMM have a very good coach in Steve Kean.
"They also have good players like Paulo Sergio and Rafael Ramazotti, so Albirex will do well to take note of them."
Albirex coach Naoki Naruo thanked his counterpart, and said: "Of course, we are going out to win on Saturday.
"In football, you can't predict the result, but our players are in very good condition and I think we can get a good result."
Albirex showed just why they sit pretty atop the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League last night.
Tampines started the game positively, despite missing seven national team players away on international duty and three others out injured, including star signing Jermaine Pennant.
But Albirex played a methodical, patient game at the start and perhaps did not expect such an easy opening goal, with Kawata completely unmarked to head home Masaya Jitozono's deep free-kick in the 32nd minute.
Tampines had a golden opportunity to equalise in the 57th minute, when English striker Billy Mehmet was played through on goal, but his powerful shot from close range was somehow kept out by the outstretched arm of Albirex goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa.
The miss proved costly, as Kawata grabbed another two goals in quick succession, first finding the net with a stupendous swerving effort from 20 metres in the 67th minute, before heading home his third five minutes later.
There was one blot on the night for Albirex when playmaker Jitozono - who provided two assists on the night - picked up a yellow card for a late sliding tackle on Irwan Shah, which means he is suspended for the final.
Albirex substitute Tatsuro Inui then added some gloss to the scoreline with a finish off the underside of the crossbar three minutes before the end.
Said Akbar: "If Billy had scored, things would have been different... because the motivation and mood (of the players) would have been different.
"But we had it coming, let's be honest here. Four-nil, kudos to them.
"The attacks they showed at the start of the second half... we didn't do well enough to plug the gaps and stop the balls from threading through the middle.
"But take nothing away from how they played and how they scored the goals."
- ALBIREX: Yosuke Nozawa, Mikiya Yamada, Kento Fujihara, Kazuki Mine, Hiroyoshi Kamata (Tomoki Mendad 54), Shuto Inaba, Kento Nagasaki, Naofumi Tanaka, Masaya Jitozono (Tadaaki Yazawa 89), Atsushi Kawata (Tatsuro Inui 77), Rui Kumada
- TAMPINES: Joey Sim, Ismadi Mukhtar, Mustafic Fahrudin (Shafie Muliantoh 79), Jufri Taha, Irwan Shah, Fabian Kwok, Noh Rahman, Gautam Selvamany (Haiqal Sulaiman 61), Jordan Webb, Saifullah Akbar, Billy Mehmet
- TNP Man of the Match: Atsushi Kawata (Albirex)
Tampines coach Akbar aims to finish season strong
After replacing V Sundramoothy, newly appointed Tampines Rovers head coach Akbar Nawas went on an eight-match winning streak, as the team chased leaders Albirex Niigata in the S.League and became contenders for The New Paper League Cup.
But his honeymoon period is over, after the Stags lost 4-0 to Albirex in the semi-finals of the League Cup at the Jurong East Stadium last night.
It was the second successive loss for the Stags, after they fell 2-1 to Brunei DPMM in a group-stage match last Saturday.
With seven players away on national duty and, with key players Jermaine Pennant and Shahdan Sulaiman sidelined by injury, perhaps the writing was on the wall for Akbar's Stags.
"I've always been saying this from the start - the winning streak was never important to me and I was never counting it," Akbar said, after the game.
"Once the national players come back, we have about two or three days left before we resume our S.League action against Geylang - those days will be crucial.
"It might take a while for us to gel the team and gain our momentum, but we'll see how it goes from there."
They may be out of the League Cup, but Tampines are second in the S.League standings with eight games of the season left and in the semi-finals of the RHB Singapore Cup, where they will face Ceres la Salle.
The common factor is that red-hot Albirex are in the way in both competitions.
The league leaders are four points ahead of the Stags and face Balestier Khalsa in the last four of the Singapore Cup, as they go for an unprecedented four trophies in a single season.
Tampines coach Akbar, though, believes his men will be able to pick themselves up.
"This loss may be a psychological blow to the team that I have right now but, when the national players return, I will have a new team," said Akbar.
"Before the League Cup, I had one team. I had one more during it and I'm going to have a new team after.
"My task now is to marry them and to turn them into one team again and see how things work out from there."