Albirex keep pace after come-from-behind win

Albirex Niigata (S) closed in at the top of the Great Eastern-YEO's S.League on Friday evening after coming from behind to beat Hougang United 2-1.

Sakamoto fires home the equaliser!
Gabriel Tan

By Gabriel Tan

Reporting from the Jalan Besar Stadium

Although they fell behind after 18 minutes thanks to Mamadou Diallo's emphatic close-range strike, the White Swans pulled level three minutes before the break thanks to a fine goal from Kazuki Sakamoto.

And two minutes before the hour mark, Sakamoto latched onto a neat cross from Bruno Castanheira and clinically fired past Fadhil Salim to hand his side all three points.

Albirex's triumph was enough to take them two points behind leaders Tampines Rovers, although the defending champions have two games in hand and could regain some breathing space with a win at Balestier Khalsa on Saturday.

The result also meant Hougang's resurgence was halted as their four-game winning streak was brought to an end, but they certainly showed no lack of spirit and actually started the brighter of the two teams.

Fazli Jaffar, in particular, looked extremely lively down the left early on and broke free twice inside the opening five minutes to deliver dangerous crosses into the box, but none of his team-mates were on hand to meet them.

As always, Albirex did have the lion's share of possession but in the 18th minute, an uncharacteristic error cost them dearly when a poor clearance by goalkeeper Hiroaki Hara handed possession to Azhar Sairudin. The Cheetahs playmaker instinctively sent the ball straight back into the box, where Nurhilmi Jasni proceeded to chest it down for the onrushing Diallo to smash home from 12 yards.

Nonetheless, going behind was not exactly a new thing for the White Swans given they had conceded the opening goal on six previous occasions in their 13 games before Friday, and had come back to rescue at least a point in four of those matches.

And with that record in mind, they refused to get flustered but continued to play their usual game and it nearly paid dividends in the 28th minute when Itsuki Yamada chipped a lovely ball into the path of Sakamoto, who finished with aplomb. However, the strike was chalked off by the linesman's flag and while it initially looked a questionable call, replays showed that the Japanese striker had been marginally offside.

Bruno Castanheira was also starting to show signs of life and on the half-hour mark, he met another good left-wing delivery by Yamada with a firm diving header that sailed just wide of the bottom corner, before breaking free down the right eight minutes later and whipping in a cross that narrowly failed to kind Sakamoto.

But three minutes before the break, their pressure paid off as they found the equaliser when Masatake Sato slipped a neat pass to Sakamoto, who skipped in between Syaqir Sulaiman and Thomas Beattie before drilling a fine effort in off the post.

Sato then nearly got a goal of his own eight minutes into the second half when his well-placed freekick drew an awkward save from Fadhil, although the Cheetahs custodian looked much more assured moments later when he reacted well to smother Kento Fukuda's dangerous cross from the resultant corner.

But there was little Fadhil could do to prevent Albirex from taking the lead two minutes before the hour mark when Bruno raced down the right and left his man for dead before playing a cross into the box. Although it was not the best of deliveries, Sakamoto did brilliantly to bring it into his stride, before blasting the ball into the back of the net.

Two minutes later, Hougang did almost manage an instant reply when Mamadou Diallo was left in acres of space on the left and floated a searching cross to the back post, but from six yards out, Liam Shotton could only send a header wide.

Now firmly in control of the match, Albirex continued to stroke the ball around at leisure while waiting for the perfect chance to break forward, and that nearly came in the 67th minute when Yuki Ichikawa pushed forward on the overlap before cutting the ball back to the edge of the box, only for Sato to send a well-struck effort straight at Fadhil.

Ten minutes later, Sato could have turned provider for the second time in the match when he put his set-piece skills to good use, swinging in a freekick that was glanced just wide by Masahiro Ishikawa.

A minute later, the Cheetahs had what eventually proved to be their final chance when substitute Jerome Baker escaped his marker's shackles and fired an effort towards goal, but Ishikawa was on hand to weigh in with a good block before Hara could be tested.

But in the end, Hougang's lack of an extra spark in the attacking third ultimately proved to be the difference on the night, something their opponents have Sakamoto to thank for as he moved level on top of the scoring charts with Tanjong Pagar United's Monsef Zerka following Friday's clinical brace.

Albirex Niigata (S): Hiroaki Hara, Yuki Ichikawa, Kento Fukuda, Masahiro Ishikawa, Yuki Ichikawa, Itsuki Yamada, Shuhei Hotta, Masatake Sato (Kazuya Fukuzaki 90'), Kento Nagasaki, Bruno Castanheira, Shingo Suzuki (Takeshi Nagasawa 60'), Kazuki Sakamoto (Yoshinaga Arima 88').

Hougang United: Fadhil Salim, Faizal Amir, Hasree Zais, Syaqir Sulaiman, Lau Meng Meng, Nurhilmi Jasni (Basit Hamid 85'), Thomas Beattie (Fairoz Hasan 78'), Azhar Sairudin, Fazli Jaffar, Mamadou Diallo, Liam Shotton (Jerome Baker 69').

Attendance: 2,268

Image courtesy of Albirex Niigata (S) FC

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