Albirex look like challengers again, after beating DPMM 3-2
White Swans issue title warning after blowing away last year's champions
ALBIREX NIIGATA 3
(Mikiya Yamada 16, Hiroyoshi Kamata 36, Kento Fujihara 60)
BRUNEI DPMM 2
(Azwan Ali 66, Naofumi Tanaka 90-og)
Before the season, some questioned Albirex Niigata's ability to challenge for silverware.
While the Japanese outfit won the RHB Singapore Cup and The New Paper League Cup last season, they retained only seven players from that squad and also parted ways with coach Tatsuyuki Okuyama.
Talk out of the Albirex camp was of a push for this season's Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League title, but few believed it.
Not any more.
The White Swans swept aside the S.League's reigning champions Brunei DPMM 3-2 last night with a display of impressive attacking football in the Great Eastern Community Shield, which doubled up as the first league fixture of the new season.
Understandably, new coach Naoki Naruo was all smiles post-match.
When asked if his side could win the S.League title, he said: "I'm not sure yet, because this is just the first game.
"But if we can show more of our first-half performance, I think we can.
"In the first half, we showed very good football and what we can do."
The Japanese side have always been known for being technically sound, but Naruo seems to have given them a directness that was missing last year.
Albirex were the S.League's lowest scorers last term, posting a miserable 27 goals in 30 matches.
They've already chalked up three, and, in truth, it could have been more.
The scoreline was kind to DPMM, who scored both their goals after uncharacteristic mistakes by experienced goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa.
Albirex were irrepressible in the early exchanges.
Naruo named three central defenders in his starting 11, but it was far from a defensive-minded tactic.
The move took the shackles off his wing backs, who flew forward whenever the team had possession.
Right wing back Mikiya Yamada duly opened the scoring after just 16 minutes.
Attacking midfielder Hiroyishi Kamata doubled the lead in the 36th minute, putting the finishing touch on a fine team move which ended with left wing back Naofumi Tanaka whipping in an inch-perfect assist.
The White Swans made it 3-0 on the hour mark, with centre back Kento Fujihara lashing home from close range off a corner.
Just minutes later, DPMM pulled one back when 36-year-old Nozawa rushed off his goal-line and completely missed the ball, allowing Azwan Ali to slot into an empty goal.
TNP PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
Azwan, last season's Young Player of the Year, was unlucky not to net his second of the night moments later when his free-kick bounced off one upright and then the other, before it was hacked clear by an Albirex defender.
Albirex have many positives to take away with them, even after another Nozawa clanger in injury time - the goalkeeper again rushed off his line, only to smack his clearance into Tanaka for the ball to ricochet into his goal.
"It was just mistakes, and we can do better in the next game," said the 41-year-old Naruo, calmly.
"We did not let (DPMM) break our defence."
When asked if fans can expect more of such swashbuckling football from his team for the rest of the season, Naruo paused, smiled and said: "Yes... But all our games will be difficult.
"We will try to do better, improve and show more good football."
DPMM coach Steve Kean feels Albirex, who finished third in the S.League last season, will be challengers again.
Said the Scot: "I said before the game that we can't look back and think this is going to be the Albirex we know.
"I know they've retained seven players, but they've signed 16 new ones. And there's a new coach.
"So you can see the dynamics of the team are different to last year.
"But the fabric of the club is still there - they try and play football, they try to control the ball and they were really aggressive in the first half... I know they're a good side.
"They had a great season last year, winning both cups.
"And I'm sure, with the quality they showed tonight, they'll be a tough team to beat.
"But we showed in the second half that even against excellent teams, which they are, we can score goals, cause problems.
"I'm sure they'll be up there, but we'll be there as well."
TNP MAN OF THE MATCH
KENTO NAGASAKI (ALBIREX)
The Albirex skipper (above) led by example from midfield, providing an assuring presence in front of the backline and also spraying telling passes forward to teammates.
- ALBIReX: Yosuke Nozawa, Mitsuki Yamada (Tomoki Menda 61), Rui Kumada, Kento Fujihara (Kazuki Mine 76), Atsushi Shirota, Naofumi Tanaka, Kento Nagasaki, Masaya Jitozono, Daichi Ishiyama (Tadaaki Yazawa 88), Hiroyoshi Kamata, Atsushi Kawata
- DPMM: Wardun Yussof, Helmi Zambin, Abdul Aziz Tamit (Yura Indera Putera 83), Brian McLean, Sairol Sahari, Maududi Hilmi, Nurikhwan osman (Khairul Anwar 63), Azwan Saleh, Paulo Sergio, Azwan Ali, Rafael Ramazotti
I'm not sure yet, because this is just the first game. But if we can show more of our first-half performance, I think we can.
— Albirex coach Naoki Naruo, on his side's title chances
Kean: We will get stronger
It hasn't been an easy pre-season for Brunei DPMM.
They've had to part company with two of their five foreign imports from last season because of new rules in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League.
As if that wasn't bad enough, one of the three foreign players remaining, Northern Ireland defender Brian McLean, joined the team only on Wednesday because his wife recently delivered their first child.
It also hardly helped that the reigning Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League champions did not even play a single friendly match to prepare for the new season, because coach Steve Kean felt the level of local teams in Brunei would mean his side would not be sufficiently tested.
All those factors resulted in a sorry 3-2 defeat by Albirex Niigata in the Great Eastern Community Shield last night, which also doubled up as the first S.League fixture of the season.
In truth, the scoreline was kind to DPMM, whose two goals were a result of uncharacteristic errors by Albirex shot-stopper Yosuke Nozawa.
Kean ST FILE PHOTO
Kean was not happy with how his team started the game - they were 3-0 down within an hour - and did not mince his words.
"We got better as the game got on... We were poor in the first half, when Albirex really controlled the game," he said.
"The difference between the two teams in the first half was that when Albirex had the ball, they moved it quick.
"Their possession was 10 or 15 passes... (whereas) when we won the ball back, we were trying to play the pass up too early, tried to play off (striker Rafael) Ramazotti too quickly.
"So we couldn't get any sort of rhythm."
The former Blackburn Rovers manager lambasted his side's defending, saying his players were "ball-watching a lot" and did not "take control".
But he insisted he was not going to lose any sleep over the performance, and backed his star man Ramazotti - the S.League's top scorer last season with 21 goals - and winger Paulo Sergio to come good.
"We've got a game in a week's time and we know what we have to work on - our defensive side of things," he said.
"Also, we have to work on the distances between our front, midfield and back... We were stretched a bit today.
"But up the top end of the pitch, we'll score goals. We always do. The front unit isn't a problem.
"It'll be tough (to retain the title), but I think we can do it."
- SAZALI ABDUL AZIZ