Albirex on the brink of S.League glory
Patience pays off as White Swans open up big gap at the top
ALBIREX NIIGATA 1
(Atsushi Shirota 78)
GEYLANG INTERNATIONAL 0
If it is true that the mark of champions is the ability to grind out results despite not being at their best, then it looks as though it will be Albirex Niigata's Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League title.
Missing top scorer Atsushi Kawata and going up against a determined Geylang International outfit, it looked as though the White Swans would be denied maximum points at Jurong East Stadium last night.
But, with 12 minutes left on the clock, skipper-for-the-night Atsushi Shirota popped up with the proverbial captain's goal to hand the Japanese outfit a victory which sends them seven points clear at the top of the standings with just four games remaining.
Although it was centre back Shirota who took Kawata's role as match winner, Albirex coach Naoki Naruo believes the void left by their talismanic striker had been filled by the entire team.
"We had two players suspended tonight (Kawata and Tomoki Menda) and our goalkeeper (Yosuke) Nozawa had only just recovered from injury, so we were missing some players," said the 41-year-old.
"We had to play as a team in order to win tonight and that's what the players did.
"I was expecting this to be a very difficult match and our plan was to win 1-0, so it was a good game from us."
As expected, the White Swans dominated possession from the opening whistle but, without Kawata, they struggled to carve out any clear openings.
Both Kento Nagasaki and Masaya Jitozono had speculative efforts well saved by Syazwan Buhari, while Naofumi Tanaka sent a header just wide of the post shortly before the break.
Geylang's plan to defend resolutely and look to hit their opponents on the counter appeared to be working, and they came close to breaking the deadlock in the 67th minute when Yuki Ichikawa scuffed a shot inches wide after being picked out by Anders Aplin's flick-on.
Albirex responded nine minutes later when Tanaka's left-wing cross was met by a bullet header from Rui Kumada, only for Syazwan to once again come to the Eagles' rescue with a terrific save.
From the resultant corner, the hosts finally found the breakthrough when Shirota was somehow left completely unmarked inside the six-yard box to head home Nagasaki's delivery.
With the lead in their grasp, the White Swans were content to sit back and see out the remainder of the game, but that plan nearly backfired.
Amy Recha came excruciatingly close to an equaliser when his ferocious drive drew a fine flying stop from Eita Kasagawa.
Aplin then spurned their final chance deep in injury time when he charged into the box to meet a Faritz Hameed cross, but was just unable to keep his header down.
"There's no question over the commitment, hunger and desire the players showed," said Geylang coach Hasrin Jailani.
"We know how dangerous Albirex can be and, to have restricted them to no chances from open play, the players should be proud of their effort.
"The only unfortunate thing was we could have done better in stopping their goal, but now we must move on and look forward to our last three games."
- TNP MAN OF THE MATCH: Syazwan Buhari (Geylang Int'l)
- LAST NIGHT'S OTHER RESULT: Balestier Khalsa 1 Warriors FC 1
- ALBIREX NIIGATA: Eita Kasagawa, Hiroyoshi Kamata, Atsushi Shirota, Kento Fujihara, Mikiya Yamada, Naofumi Tanaka, Shuto Inaba, Kento Nagasaki, Masaya Jitozono (Rui Kumada 71), Daichi Ishiyama (Tatsuro Inui 86), Kazuki Mine.
- GEYLANG INTERNATIONAL: Syazwan Buhari, Faritz Hameed, Daniel Bennett, Yuki Ichikawa, Al-Qaasimy Rahman (Shahfiq Ghani 82), Nor Azli Yusoff, Roberto Camarasa (Anders Aplin 55), Safirul Sulaiman, Shawal Anuar, Gabriel Quak (Amy Recha 73), Sahil Suhaimi.