By Gabriel TanFollow @@gabetan13
Reporting from the Jurong East Stadium
The only goal of the game in the 12th minute when Park Kang-jin netted with a clinical finish, but it was enough to seal a deserving victory for the Tigers, who were always in control throughout the 90 minutes.
Entering the game as one of the in-form sides in the Great Eastern-YEO’s S.League, having lost just once in their last 16 games in all competition ahead of Monday’s clash, Balestier looked a side determined to move one step closer to claiming the first major piece of silverware in their history.
Despite having not beaten and scored against the White Swans in their two meetings so far this season, the visitors showed good initiative from the opening whistle and had their first chance in the eighth minute when Ruhaizad Ismail pounced on a loose ball just inside the area and drilled a low shot straight at Hiroki Hara.
Three minutes later, Hara was called into action once again when Paul Cunningham, in an attempt reach Zulkiffli Hassim’s deft pass, inadvertently sent the ball looping over the Albirex goalkeeper, although he recovered in time to keep it out.
But there was no preventing the Tigers from taking the lead a minute later when Poh Yi Feng’s neat little pass found Park, who beat his man with a lovely turn and broke free inside the box before coolly placing his left-footed shot into the bottom corner.
The goal did manage to draw some life out of the lacklustre Albirex players and they had a couple of good chances to equalise shortly before the half-hour mark.
First, Kazuki Sakamoto latched onto Shingo Suzuki’s through-ball and raced towards goal but was thwarted by Zaiful Nizam in a one-on-one situation, before Bruno Castanheira fired a shot narrowly wide of the bottom corner shortly following his burst past Syed Thaha down the right.
However, it was Balestier who continued to remain in control and they had a half-chance to double their tally right on the stroke of halftime when Zulkiffli floated a cross from the left onto the head of Cunningham, only for him to glance his effort straight at Hara.
Eight minutes after the break, the hosts had another nervy moment when Hara dallied too long on in possession and saw his clearance charged down by the onrushing Kim Min-ho but thankfully for them, the ball sailed away from goal and to safety.
Although they were enjoying their fair share of possession, Albirex were really struggling to carve out a clear-cut opportunity but one arrived in the 67th minute; Bruno hitting the byline before cutting it back to the unmarked Kento Nagasaki, who drilled one wide from ten yards.
Nagasaki had another chance nine minutes later when Suzuki broke free down the right and picked him out inside the box, but the midfielder opted against firing away first-time and was eventually dispossessed by Poh.
While they were in possession of the lead, Balestier refused to sit back as the game entered its closing stages and could have killed the contest in the 77th minute when Jaslee Hatta’s long ball was flicked on by Cunningham into the path of Kim, but he wastefully skied his shot with only Hara to beat.
Four minutes from time, Albirex had another half-chance to equalise when Bruno rode a couple of challenges on the edge of the box to create space for himself, but he could only blast one on his left foot inches over.
And in injury-time, there was one final opportunity for the hosts to force the draw and send the game into extra-time when Kento Fukuda met a corner with a glancing header from six yards out, but Zaiful and his defenders combined to stop the ball right on the line, sealing Balestier’s progress to the final.
Balestier Khalsa: Zaiful Nizam, Poh Yi Feng, Obadin Aikhena, Jaslee Hatta, Syed Thaha, Ridwan Jamil (Shafuan Sutohmoh 80’), Kim Min-ho, Park Kang-jin, Ruhaizad Ismail (Tengku Mushadad 70’), Zulkiffli Hassim (Rasmus Fristedt 90’), Paul Cunningham.
Albirex Niigata (S): Hiroaki Hara, Tatsuya Sase (Shuhei Hotta 46’), Kento Fukuda, Yuki Ichikawa, Itsuki Yamada, Takeshi Nagasawa (Kazuya Fukuzaki 84’), Masatake Sato (Hiroki Morisaki 90’), Kento Nagasaki, Bruno Castanheira, Shingo Suzuki, Kazuki Sakamoto.
Image courtesy of Balestier Khalsa FC (Andrew Lim)