Geylang's Ichikawa looking forward to facing old team Albirex
In-form Geylang defender Ichikawa relishing top-of-the-table clash with former team
GEYLANG INTERNATIONAL v ALBIREX NIIGATA
(Tonight, 7.30pm, Bedok Stadium)
He will line up against the best attack in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League tonight.
But Geylang International defender Yuki Ichikawa is not exactly shaking in his boots at the thought of facing former club Albirex Niigata, who have rattled in nine goals in three games and sit pretty at the summit of the league.
In fact, the 28-year-old believes his high-flying Eagles can repel the White Swans and win this early clash between table-toppers, if they keep one opposing player quiet.
"The dangerman in this year's Albirex team is (Atsushi) Kawata," Ichikawa told The New Paper before training on Tuesday.
"Stop him and we stop Albirex's attack. I think last year's Albirex team were better.
"However, they are still a very good team and it will be very difficult for us, but I am looking forward to the challenge.
EYEING THE TOP
"They are top, but if we win, we will overtake them. That's what we want to do."
While four-goal striker Kawata is one player who can hurt Geylang tonight, Albirex do have a host of other dangermen.
Perhaps the defender, who played three seasons with Albirex before joining Geylang in 2014, knows a thing or two about dealing with the rest of his compatriots.
Ichikawa will cross swords with some familiar faces tonight, even though just seven members of last year's Albirex team remain in their 24-man squad.
Among them are White Swans skipper Kento Nagasaki, who has been with Albirex since 2013, and winger Tatsuro Inui, who scored 20 goals over two seasons with Albirex in 2010 and 2011, but spent three of the last four years at Warriors FC and Geylang.
Geylang coach Hasrin Jailani backed Ichikawa to continue his impressive early-season form against his former club.
Said the former Singapore midfielder: "Last year, there was Kento (Fukuda) in the team, and a lot of people talked more about him than Yuki.
"But with Kento gone (to Warriors FC), Yuki has been outstanding.
"He has been one of our most consistent players.
"In fact, I'm not surprised (with his performances) because he works very hard and he has adapted well to the new players around him."
Geylang are the S.League's sleeping giants, having lifted the league title twice, although the second time was in 2001.
New chairman Ben Teng, who took over the club late last year, is on a mission to rouse the famous side.
The club swooped to sign 16 new faces ahead of the season, including five ex-LionsXII players.
The team look to be gelling nicely under rookie coach Hasrin, whose charges have held title favourites Tampines Rovers and reigning league champions Brunei DPMM.
The results surprised some, considering Geylang finished eighth out of 10 teams last year.
But Ichikawa said: "This year, the quality of our local players is very high. Last year, not so much.
"This year, we have a new chairman, a new coach, a new team... Everything has changed.
"So it's a big chance for us to have a new start."
Added Hasrin: "Before the start of the season, not many gave us a chance (of doing well).
"But after four games, a lot of people realise we have a good team.
"Albirex are a very good team. They are mobile on the ball and their players have strong stamina.
"I have watched them play, seen videos, and I'm working hard to come up with a plan.
"What is most important to me is that every time my players go out onto the pitch, they approach the game with a positive mindset."
- Geylang Int'l v Albirex Niigata (Bedok Stadium, 7.30pm)
- Garena Young Lions v Hougang United (Jalan Besar Stadium, 7.30pm)
- Balestier Khalsa v Warriors FC (Jalan Besar Stadium, 7.45pm)
- Brunei DPMM v Home United (Bandar Seri Begawan, 8.15pm)
Four White Swans to watch
While the 23-year-old’s haul of four goals this season all came in one game, against an inexperienced Garena Young Lions team, he isn’t just a flat-track bully.
Kawata, the S.League's leading scorer, also played a vital role leading Albirex's attack in their 3-2 win over Brunei DPMM on the opening day, and in the 1-1 draw with Balestier Khalsa.
He failed to find the net in those games only due to a combination of inspired goalkeeping and desperate defending.
Deployed mostly on the wing last year, new White Swans coach Naoki Naruo has converted him into the team's main striker, and has reaped the rewards.
Blessed with speed and strength, excellent technical ability and a ferocious shot, Kawata will be the main man to watch tonight.
Jitozono is like a katana, the traditional razor-sharp Japanese sword, often slicing rivals' defences apart with his incisive passes.
The 26-year-old pass master idolises former Japan star Shunsuke Nakamura and, not surprisingly, he models his game after him. Like the ex-Celtic midfielder, Jitozono is a set-piece specialist and has a superb left foot.
THE NIIGATA EXPRESS
It wouldn't be a surprise if Kamata's favourite movie is "Catch Me If You Can". For the pint-sized 18-year-old forward is as quick as a bullet train.
Kamata stands at just 1.65m and has learnt a lot from 1.67m-tall former Japan international striker Tatsuya Tanaka, whom he trained with while on the fringes of Albirex's J.League side, before moving here.
The teen has started in all three of Albirex's games, finding the net against last year's champions DPMM.
The attacking midfielder has made only two appearances off the bench, due to an injury picked up in pre-season.
But he could be in line for a first start tonight at Bedok Stadium against his former team.
Inui scored 20 goals over two seasons with Albirex in 2010 and 2011, but spent three of the last four years at Warriors FC and Geylang International.
He did not exactly set the league alight in his stints with the two local clubs, and will be out to prove a point against his former employers.
Eagles rising? Former coaching director Seak says...
SEAK POH LEONG
Geylang head coach (2002) and director of coaching (2003 to 2010)
"They've done well so far, and that's good to see.
"But we all know the league is a marathon, not a sprint, so it's difficult to say how far they can go, especially when you consider injuries and suspensions that may happen later on in the season.
"It's not too easy to win a cup competition either, as a lot of teams have beefed up their squads this year. I think, as long as they perform well, let them have a run and see where they land at the end of the season.
"From there, they can build on for next year. It's unfair to expect them to challenge for the S.League title in the first year (of rebuilding under new management)."