TNP League Cup: Albirex hang tough to tame Tigers
(Fumiya Kogure 76, Kento Nagasaki 89)
(Miroslav Kristic 10)
Almost an hour after The New Paper League Cup final last night, after the crowd had cleared and confetti littered the Jalan Besar Stadium pitch, the Albirex Niigata players were still on the field.
With their winners' medals hanging from their necks, the 13 players who played a part in defeating Balestier 2-1 were limbering down.
Professionalism, in every sense of the word.
And it was that level of discipline, that dedication to fitness, that gave the Japanese side the edge in the end.
A goal down with less than 15 minutes to go, the White Swans dug deep and demonstrated a never-give-up attitude to score twice in the closing minutes to lift the Cup in front of around 3,000 fans.
After Fumiya Kogure had cancelled out Miroslav Kristic's 10th-minute opener on 76 minutes, substitute Kento Nagasaki fired home into the top corner from close range with a minute remaining to give Albirex their second League Cup trophy.
They had previously won the 2011 edition.
"Fitness was one of the reasons we won the game," said Albirex coach Tatsuyuki Okuyama.
"I wasn't worried the game would go into extra time. I always knew we would get the two goals.
"Conceding the early goal surprised us, and we took time to recover.
"But we made substitutions at the right time and they made an impact on the game."
Albirex, who had not conceded a goal in their previous three matches in the tournament, started the brighter, controlling possession and testing Zaiful Nizam in the Balestier goal.
But it was Marco Kraljevic's side who drew first blood when tournament top scorer Kristic steered a low cross by Zulkiffli Hassim into the bottom corner for his sixth League Cup goal.
The 25-year-old striker, who picked up the Most Valuable Player award after the match, should have doubled his side's lead moments later when he raced through on goal, but Albirex captain and goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa did well to block his shot.
Albirex continued to control the game in the second half and finally looked dangerous after playmaker and No. 10 Nagasaki - largely out of favour this season - came on after 55 minutes.
When Kogure equalised in the 76th minute, the White Swans continued to push for the winner against a tired Balestier side who were simply hanging on for extra time.
In the 89th minute, Nagasaki latched onto a lobbed pass in the box to slam the ball home.
Frustration overcame the Tigers, who had Kristic sent off for elbowing an Albirex player in injury time.
"I don't blame anyone for this defeat, Albirex pushed us all the way," said a disappointed Kraljevic, after the game.
"They are a good team, but we should have finished off the game in the first half when Kristic had chances.
"In the end, we made a mistake and they scored; that's football."
Second in the S.League after just 12 rounds, the White Swans have made no secret about their desire to finally win the elusive title after 12 seasons here.
This Cup win, said Okuyama, is a big boost to that end.
"It's too early to say if we can or will win the league. But we strive to be better after every game," he said.
"To come back from a goal down and win the cup will have a very positive impact on the young players."
Albirex picked up the $30,000 winners' cheque, which was presented by TNP editor Dominic Nathan.
"Congratulations to Albirex for winning The New Paper League Cup," said Nathan.
"This was a tough battle between two good sides.
"Albirex and Balestier put on a good show for the fans in the end and this is a positive result moving into the second half of the S.League campaign.
"A come-from-behind win with a late goal and red card, the game had everything you could ask for."
"Conceding the early goal surprised us, and we took time to recover. But we made substitutions at the right time and they made an impact on the game."
- Albirex coach Tatsuyuki Okuyama on his changes, one of which was to bring on match-winner Kento Nagasaki (above)
"Akiramenai... Yes, this team has heart, and I’m sure we showed everyone that we are good enough to win the S.League this year."
- Albirex chairman Daisuke Korenaga. “Akiramenai” means “never give up” in Japanese.a
SHOTS ON TARGET: Albirex 7 Balestier 6
SHOTS OFF TARGET: Albirex 8 Balestier 5
CORNERS: Albirex 5 Balestier 2
YELLOW CARDS: Albirex 0 Balestier 3
RED CARD: Miroslav Kristic (Balestier)
MATCH RATING: 6/10
REFEREE: Sukhbir Singh
ALBIREX: Yosuke Nozawa, Rui Kumada (Kento Nagasaki 55), Shun Inaba, Atsushi Kawata, Rion Taki (Shotaro Ihata 70), Fumiya Kogure, Hikaru Mizuno, Itsuki Yamada, Takahiro Saito, Kento Fujihara, Mikiya Yamada
BALESTIER: Zaiful Nizam, Ahmad Syafir, Igor Cerina, Emir Lotinac, Ho Wai Loon, Zulkiffli Hassim (Ignatius Ang 69), Robert Pericic, Miroslav Kristic, Tarik Cmajcanin, Fadhil Noh (Hazzuwan Halim 90), Poh Yifeng
TNP MAN OF THE MATCH: Kento Nagasaki (Albirex)
Now aim for the S.League title, urges Albirex boss
Albirex chairman Daisuke Korenaga cut an animated figure as he watched his team from the VIP box at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Korenaga (above) appealed for every "foul" not given to his side and rued every miss by throwing his arms up.
When The New Paper approached him as he congratulated his players on the pitch after their 2-1 success in The New Paper League Cup final over Balestier Khalsa last night, he was a picture of calm.
"Akiramenai," he explained to this reporter, when asked how to say "never give up" in Japanese.
He then nodded in agreement.
"Honestly, (going by) our schedule in the Cup, we had to win it. The schedule favoured us," he said, referring to the nine days of rest his team had before last Sunday's semi-final against Geylang International.
Geylang, on the other hand, had just three days of rest after the group stage.
"Yes, this team has heart, and I'm sure we showed everyone that we are good enough to win the S.League this year."
Korenaga has made no secret of his desire to win the coveted S.League title in Albirex's 12th season in Singapore.
After finishing third twice over the past three seasons, he believes the time is now for the White Swans, who are in second spot in the league standings, one point behind reigning champions Warriors FC, with the second half of the campaign to come.
Despite retaining just three squad members from last season, when they finished fifth, Korenaga believes the standard of this year's team is the same.
"We're about the same strength as last year - just luckier now," he added.
"Now, we hope we can be lucky enough to win the S.League and Singapore Cup as well."