Diligent Woodlands hand Albirex first defeat

Albirex Niigata (S) were handed their first defeat in the 2013 Great Eastern-YEO's S.League season after falling 2-1 to an industrious Woodlands Wellington outfit.

Hotta only has eyes for the ball...
Suhas Bhat

By Suhas Bhat

Reporting from the Woodlands Stadium

The game began in earnest in 21st minute when Khalid Hamdaoui managed to send a precise shot into the top right corner from the edge of the box.

The visitors struggled to find their usual passing rhythm as a resilient backline snapped at the heels of the Japanese players at every opportunity and it took until the 71st minute for Kento Nagasaki to level the scoreline with a well-placed shot from just outside the box.

The Rams were not to be outdone, however, and gave their buoyant supporters further cause for cheer eight minutes later when Chang Jo-yoon fired in the rebound after a corner was flicked back into his path.

Despite having the majority of the possession, the White Swans could not find the equaliser in the closing stages of the game and Tanjong Pagar United, who face them next, should be heartened by the end of the Japanese side's five-game winning run.

It was an all-round team performance for the Rams that got them the three points with Hamdaoui arguably the best player on the night. The Dutchman easily danced past the Albirex midfielders and sent in several intelligent passes to free up his fellow attackers until his withdrawal in the second half.

The 32-year-old also opened the scoring for the home side early in the game as a smart pass by Chang found him stationed at the left edge of the area, allowing him to send in a curling shot that a diving Hiroaki Hara was unable to keep out.

A short while later, Woodland's marquee signing again demonstrated his worth as a clever backheel sent Atsushi Shimono through down the left - the piece of skill also elicited appreciative applause from the stands - but Moon Soon-ho could not meet the subsequent delivery into the middle.

Taufiq Rahmat, employed in a central role for the game, was the midfield enforcer for the side and did a good job preventing the duo of Nagasaki and Shingo Suzuki from delivering too many through-balls to lone forward Kazuki Sakamoto.

It also helped that Shahril Alias was putting in a captain's performance on the night and made several crucial sliding challenges on the wet surface.

It was a disappointing first half for Albirex, though, as they just could not carve out any clear-cut chances, hampered as they were by the physicality of their opponents who also saw Ridhwan Osman collect a yellow card, and a half-hearted cross from the right by Tatsuya Sase was kept out by Yazid Yasin in the 43rd minute.

Sugiyama swapped the defender for Hiroki Morisaki at the break in a bid to spur the Jurong East outfit and they appeared to be a bit more settled after the change.

They could have easily levelled the scores eight minutes later had a low cross from the right byline by Nagasaki reached a team-mate but it was left to Ridhwan to clear it for a corner.

But they had to be watchful of the quick Woodlands counter-attacks as well as a determined run by Taufiq down the right earned a corner that Moon could only head straight at Hara.

Morisaki made his impact felt on the hour-mark as a dribble across goal from the left dragged the defenders out of position and his pass down the line nearly reached Sakamoto but the striker could not take the ball past the onrushing Yazid.

Four minutes later, Taufiq chipped a ball towards Moon but the latter's attempt with a shot down the middle failed to trouble the Albirex goalkeeper. He also earned a yellow card a short while later for simulation.

In the 71st minute, the away side scored their first goal as a square pass by Shingo Suzuki towards Nagasaki was met by the midfielder who showed great composure to take the ball away from the reach of two markers and sent in a dipping shot that went into the top right corner.

Hamdaoui was hurt during a midfield clash five minutes later and Salim Moin opted to take the safe route and substituted the 32-year-old with Oswind Suriya in the 76th minute.

The high-fliers nearly had a fright 13 minutes from time as Kento Fukuda brought down Shimono just as the Japanese defender looked set to get on the end of a through-ball but the referee handed the Albirex player a yellow card - instead of a straight red - and pointed for a free-kick just outside the box.

Chang had a great chance to score from the set piece opportunity but his attempt was blocked by the wall and went out for a corner.

He made no mistake a couple of minutes later, however, as Taufiq's corner from the right towards the near post was headed back towards him and it was only too easy for the player to fire the ball home from 10 yards out.

With just ten minutes remaining, Albirex were facing what seemed a certain defeat and Shahril made another crucial challenge to disposses Bruno Castanheira as the winger chased a ball down the left wing.

Even Fukuda ran forward to join the attack and passed the ball along to Sakamoto but his shot from the right was easily saved by Yazid as the clock inched closer to the final whistle.

Woodlands brought in reinforcements in Goh Swee Swee and Armanizam Dolah and held on just long enough to secure their second win of the campaign and go fifth in the table.

Image courtesy of Albirex Niigata (S) FC

The Rams will next face an equally stern test in a visit to Brunei to take on DPMM FC on Sunday.

Albirex could also go three points behind league leaders Tampines if the Stags emerge victorious in their away trip to Home United later on Friday but will now have a week's rest before their next game against Tanjong Pagar at the Jurong East Stadium.

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