White Swans feeling the heat
After sweeping all 11 trophies since 2016, new-look Albirex admit it won't be as smooth-sailing this season
All eyes are fixed on Albirex Niigata as they prepare to defend their Singapore Premier League (SPL) title this season.
The White Swans, who have swept all 11 trophies on offer in Singapore football since 2016, learnt last week that it might not be as smooth-sailing this time.
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They lost 5-4 on penalties to Home United in last Saturday's Community Shield, prompting new head coach Keiji Shigetomi to concede that the pressure is on.
He said: "We are a young team and don't have much experience playing in front of big crowds. We lose out on game composure."
The 39-year-old, who was their assistant coach last season, has his work cut out.
First, as part of SPL regulations, Albirex are required to sign at least four local Under-21 player s this year, with two starting and finishing the first half of every match.
They signed six locals - Noor Akid Nordin, Hyrulnizam Juma'at, Gerald Ang, Firas Irwan, Zamani Zamri and Martens Daniel Jordan Rowsing.
The latter three are students and are unable to attend morning training sessions. They can train only two days out of their six-day schedule.
To overcome that, Shigetomi conducts additional afternoon sessions for them. He also films their training sessions and friendly matches and sends the video clips to the players, along with his analyses, which allows the absentees to catch up.
With 20 new players on board this year, the White Swans have an average age of 20.9 years old, a drop from last year's 23.
They have retained only four players- midfielder Hiroyoshi Kamata and defenders Shuhei Sasahara, Kodai Sumikawa and Kaishu Yamazaki.
Yamazaki, 21, has also taken on a midfield role and was appointed vice-captain. He has taken it upon himself to guide his new teammates.
"SPL is difficult for first-time foreign players. Last year, I took some time to adapt to the different playing styles, pitches and refereeing in Singapore," said Yamazaki, who added that Japanese referees do not hand out cards as often.
He agrees with Shigetomi that the younger squad may lose out in terms of experience, but believes they make up for it with a strong team spirit.
This year's White Swans are not all fledglings, though.
There's still experience in the form of goalkeeper Kengo Fukudome, 31. He replaces 39-year-old Yosuke Nozawa, who has returned to Japan to play for Albirex's J-League team.
The Community Shield defeat clearly still rankles with Fukudome, who joined from third-tier Japanese team Azul Claro Numazu.
Asked about the match, he said: "We aimed to win all three trophies but we've already lost the first one. Sometimes, we can't get the result that we want. That's football. Now, we're focusing on one game at a time."
- Young Lions v Balestier Khalsa (Jalan Besar Stadium)
- Home United v Brunei DPMM (Bishan Stadium)
- Hougang United v Tampines Rovers (Jalan Besar Stadium)
*All matches at 5.30pm