Albirex show title credentials in come-from-behind win
League leaders show their mettle and widen gap at the summit
HOUGANG UNITED 1
(Jozef Kaplan 39)
ALBIREX NIIGATA 2
(Atsushi Kawata 57, Tatsuro Inui 63)
They looked sluggish after the international break, needing an injury-time goal to see off Warriors FC last Friday.
And for 45 minutes at the Hougang Stadium last night, it looked as if Albirex Niigata had not shaken off the lethargy, going into the half-time break trailing 1-0 to Hougang United.
But quick-fire goals by Atsushi Kawata and Tatsuro Inui in the second half ensured the leaders finished as 2-1 victors in their Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League clash.
What made the White Swans' come-from-behind victory even more impressive was the fact that Hougang were undefeated in six matches on their home turf, stopping the likes of Home United, Brunei DPMM and Tampines Rovers from taking maximum points there.
"We knew it was going to be difficult and they made it difficult for us in the first half because they defended well and they also got the first goal," said a visibly pleased Albirex coach Naruki Naruo.
"At half-time, I told the players to be more relaxed with the ball and I asked the central midfielders to move the ball wide, so that we could get crosses in for our strikers.
"Our second-half performance was much better and we managed to score the important goals and get the three points."
Albirex's impressive winning streak in the league has now been stretched to nine games as they moved seven points clear of closest rivals Tampines.
Both teams crafted several scoring opportunities in the first half, but were unable to capitalise on them.
Albirex's Hiroyoshi Kamata had a chance to break the deadlock in the 17th minute after a dazzling run into the penalty box, but his ferocious shot at goal was tipped away excellently by Hougang shotstopper Khairulhin Khalid.
After nearly 22 minutes of both teams exchanging blows, the Cheetahs opened the scoring in the 39th minute.
Skipper Jozef Kaplan rose highest to connect with reigning S.League Player of the Year Fumiya Kogure's exquisite delivery from a free-kick to give them a crucial lead.
Albirex came out after the interval with all guns blazing and their efforts were rewarded in the 57th minute when Inui's defence-splitting pass found league top-scorer Kawata, who slotted home with ease.
The White Swans peppered the Hougang goal with shots but were denied by Khairulhin who was in inspired form, pulling off several spectacular saves to keep his team in the game.
But he was unable to prevent Albirex from taking the lead in the 63rd minute.
Playmaker Inui turned from provider to scorer after his inch-perfect free-kick, given away by Hougang midfielder Raihan Rahman, found the back of the net.
Hougang did not let the two goals dampen their morale and fought gallantly as they threw caution to the wind in search of an equaliser.
Iqbal Hussain, Nur Ridho Jafri and Nur Na'iim Ishak were all brought on in an attempt to salvage at least a point, but the Japanese side dug deep and came away from the intimidating venue with all three points.
Hougang coach, K. Balagumaran, was understandably disappointed that his team let their early lead slip away.
"It's painful, we had a game plan and we did well in the first half, we defended well and we scored the first goal and I thought we could sustain the lead," he said.
"But we lost concentration in the second half and gave away some cheap fouls and they scored two quick goals from that.
"The good thing is that we did not give up and tried to get back but it didn't work, so we have to accept it and move on to the next game."
TNP MAN OF THE MATCH: Tatsuro Inui (Albirex Niigata)
- HOUGANG: Khairulhin Khalid, Nazrul Nazari, Delwinder Singh, Wahyudi Wahid, Faiz Salleh, Nurhilmi Jasni (Iqbal Hussain 65), Raihan Rahman (Nur Ridho Jafri 78), M. Anumanthan, Fumiya Kogure (Nur Na'iim Ishak 87), Jozef Kaplan, Stipe Plazibat
- ALBIREX: Yosuke Nozawa, Mikiya Yamada, Atsushi Shirota, Kento Fujihara, Tomoki Menda, Shuto Inaba, Kento Nagasaki, Naofumi Tanaka, Tatsuro Inui (Daichi Ishiyama 69), Hiroyoshi Kamata (Kazuki Mine 84), Atsushi Kawata (Rui Kamada 90+3).