New season, same winning Albirex
Japanese side start 2018 the way they ended 2017 - with silverware
|ALBIREX NIIGATA||TAMPINES ROVERS|
59-pen, Shuhei Hoshino 89)
|(Fahrudin Mustafic 77)|
Albirex Niigata continued from where they left off last year when they defeated Tampines Rovers 2-1 in the opener of the newly renamed Singapore Premier League at the National Stadium on Saturday.
Striker Shuhei Hoshino's 89th-minute winner was the difference between both sides in front of 18,942 spectactors.
Earlier, Tampines skipper Fahrudin Mustafic had equalised in the 77th minute, after Albirex's pocket rocket Taku Morinaga had given the White Swans the lead with a 59th-minute penalty.
Despite retaining only two players from last year's quadruple-winning side, the new-look Albirex, whose players are under 23 years of age –except for goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa – did not look overawed.
After a goalless first half, both sides made changes with Jordan Webb coming on for Tampines and Albirex introducing Adam Swandi in the 52nd minute – the 22-year-old becoming the first Singaporean to play for the Japanese side, following new SPL rules.
Seven minutes later, Albirex went ahead through a penalty, after Webb was adjudged to have fouled Adam following a corner kick.
Despite Tampines' protests, referee Muhammad Taqi had no hesitation pointing to the spot, with Webb booked as well.
Morinaga, who has been set a 20-goal target by club chairman Daisuke Korenaga, made no mistake from the spot.
The 1.53m Morinaga later went down in the box, after appearing to be fouled by Tampines' young defender Irfan Najeeb, but Taqi was unconvinced this time.
Tampines, who had sent on Singapore international Khairul Amri to join Webb and Megumi up front, began to look dangerous and their sustained pressure paid off in the 77th minute, when Yasir Hanapi's corner kick found an unmarked Mustafic who headed in the equaliser to set up a thrilling finale.
Both sides then stepped up the intensity as they went in search of a winner.
Amri found himself with a great chance in the 83rd minute, when he received the ball on the left flank and surged into the box as an expectant crowd urged him on. However, the 32-year-old's effort went off target.
Five minutes later, it was Webb who had a chance to score. Megumi sprinted down the right flank and sent in a cross for the Canadian forward, but his downward header hardly troubled Nozawa.
The next minute, Albirex found their winner.
Morinaga, relaying a pass from captain Wataru Murofushi, found Hoshino who rifled in a low shot past Syazwan to break Tampines' hearts.
Tampines still had time for an equaliser in injury-time but Amri's header from a corner went over in what must have seemed like deja vu to both sides - Albirex had also won last year's Community Shield by defeating Tampines 2-1 with a late goal.
Singapore President Halimah Yacob, who had declared the Singapore Premier League open before the game, handed out the winners' tokens to Albirex, with Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu doing the honours for the runners-up.