Albirex preach patience, not panic
White Swans have put their mid-season wobble behind them as they look to extend seven-match unbeaten run
|ALBIREX NIIGATA||GEYLANG INTERNATIONAL|
The Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League match last Saturday was in its dying embers as the clock neared the 94th-minute mark and the score stuck at 1-1.
But Albirex Niigata side did not panic, and continued to patiently stroke the ball around, looking for an opening against Warriors FC. And they found it.
Ryuya Motoda's cross from the right was cleared only as far as Shuto Inaba just outside the box. The Albirex captain instinctively swept the ball out left for the overlapping Naofumi Tanaka.
The left back passed the ball to Kento Nagasaki, who laid it off for Inaba to fire in a deflected winner from the edge of the area and give his team a crucial win and a six-point lead over second-placed Tampines Rovers, albeit having played one game more.
That was Albirex's 15th S.League goal - more than a third of their total of 42 - scored on or after the 70th-minute mark, five more than the next-best tally of 10 mustered by the Warriors.
In these 20-minute-or-so periods, Albirex have also conceded just four goals in 15 league matches, the joint-least along with Hougang United and Balestier Khalsa.
These late surges have seen the White Swans rescue eight points - the 2-1 win against Tampines on the opening day and the last-gasp 2-2 draw against Home United spring to mind - more than the rest of the nine-team S.League.
It also landed them The New Paper League Cup when they beat Warriors FC 1-0 in the final with a 110th-minute winner.
This is why Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga will never press the panic button, not even if the score is not in their favour late in tomorrow's match against a resurgent Geylang International side at the Jurong East Stadium.
The 49-year-old explained: "Japanese footballers are taught from a young age that the first 15 minutes, the last 15 minutes of each half, and five minutes after any goal are crucial periods of the game.
"They know instinctively that they have to make it count and not concede, I don't have to teach them any more now that they are adult players.
"We watched many S.League games and most teams break down after 70 minutes. Therefore, even when we are not leading, I'm confident we can change the game later on."
This sense of assurance has spread throughout the team once more, after a mid-season wobble that saw them lose two straight matches to Home United and Hougang United.
Since then, they have gone on a seven-match unbeaten streak that included six victories.
Inaba said: "Losing our (11-match) unbeaten start gave us the push we needed.
"The patient style of play during the matches is a reflection of the hard training we go through every day to try to replicate as close as possible the various match scenarios.
"We are in a good position in the league now, but we are missing key players such as Tomoki Menda and Yuuki Yamanouchi.
"I feel if we want to retain our league title, it is important not to have any more injuries and all our players stay fit and available."
If Albirex beat the Eagles tomorrow, they can reach 40 points at the end of the second round of fixtures, one fewer than last season's all-conquering side.
But Yoshinaga refused to get carried away and challenged his team to surpass the winning total of 50 points.
He said: "We are happy to lead the table, but we haven't won the league so that's meaningless for now.
"We are focused on the next game and Geylang have improved greatly recently. The keys to victory are how we can control and dominate the game, and contain their imports up front to ensure they have no sniff at goal.
"We have a bunch of young players who have a lot of potential. I would like them to improve on their abilities individually, so that we can have a strong team to go on and win the S.League and RHB Singapore Cup."