Albirex Niigata FC (S) will attempt what no other club has done in the Singapore Premier League by winning 10 consecutive matches since the start of the 2018 Singapore Premier League (SPL) campaign.
Standing in their way will be a resurgent Balestier Khalsa side who have surprised onlookers with their brilliant form.
BACKGROUND: As some may say, just hand Albirex the trophy already. The White Swans’ class of 2018 have carried on where their predecessors left off last season, with an astonishing start to their title defence with nine wins in as many games.
Despite retaining just two players in Yosuke Nozawa and Hiroyoshi Kamata and almost half of the squad made up of U-21 players, Kazuaki Yoshinaga’s new-look side have adapted to life at this level like fish to water and left the rest of the SPL sides trailing in their wake.
They are a massive 14 points ahead of Sunday night’s opponents Balestier and may well extend the gap to 17, should they win and other results go their way this weekend.
Nonetheless midfielder Daiki Asaoka believes his side need to keep their feet on the ground, after getting the rub of the green with refereeing decisions in recent games.
One example was last week’s thrilling 4-3 win away at Tampines Rovers FC, where Ryutaro Megumi’s goal was disallowed for an infringement when the score was locked at 3-3 before Asaoka went on to thump home a 35-yard scorcher in the dying moments to decide the game.
“Honestly we were so happy to get the three points. I’ve been practicing (long shots) after training so to score was indeed satisfying for me,” the 23-year-old told FOX Sports Asia.
“But we did not put in the best performance as a team in that game and we need to further improve to become the best team.
“Coach always reminds us that we have to be humble. So we have been training hard without thinking too much about other things and staying focused in our training sessions.”
The White Swans are looking to extend their incredible winning streak at Jurong East to 31 matches – a run that started in November 2015 – but it will be a slightly tricky task against a much-improved Balestier side.
Marko Kraljevic’s men have collected 13 points from nine matches and are just one win away from matching their 2017 tally of five.
Midfield anchorman Raihan Rahman’s season-ending anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury was a dampening one, but the rest of the team have gone about their jobs with minimal fuss – culminating in a superb 2-1 comeback win against Home United FC at the National Stadium last Saturday.
A Vedran Mesec long-range strike in the 87th minute and Huzaifah Aziz’s stunning solo goal in injury time rescued victory from the jaws of defeat, after they had trailed for long periods of the game due to Hafiz Nor’s early opener.
Defender Fadli Kamis lauds the strong team spirit that has brought the Tigers up to the giddy heights of second and backs them to remain in the higher echelons of the table.
“I’ve always believed that my team can pull off the victory (against Home) although we were down by a goal for most of the game,” said the 25-year-old.
“We have a brotherhood-like atmosphere in this team so we go into each game with high confidence and a winning mentality. We just have to maintain this and be consistent in every game. If we can do it, I believe we’re capable of a top-three finish.”
The odds are stacked against Balestier though, having lost the last nine head-to-head encounters against Albirex. One has to go all the way back to July 2015 for their last victory at Jurong East, as they prevailed 1-0 through Fadhil Noh’s long-range stunner.
TEAM NEWS: Albirex will continue to miss out on centre-back Shun Kumagai as he continues to recover from a meniscus tear, while Singaporean playmaker Adam Swandi is unlikely to be fit for duty after missing the Tampines game due to a knee injury.
Meanwhile Balestier face a defensive crisis with Sharin Majid and Shaqi Sulaiman out injured, while Nurullah Hussein will serve a one-match suspension for his dismissal against Home.
Fortunately though, Sheikh Abdul Hadi has returned to training after recovering from an Achilles injury and may well start alongside Sufianto Salleh at the heart of the Tigers defence.
New Zealander forward Keegan Linderboom should also return to the starting eleven after coming on for the final 20 minutes against Home.
Albirex Niigata FC (S): WWWWW
Balestier Khalsa FC: DWLLW
08/04/18 Balestier 0-1 Albirex – Singapore Premier League
26/10/17 Balestier 0-3 Albirex – Singapore Premier League
26/07/17 Albirex 2-1 Balestier – Singapore Premier League
21/04/17 Balestier 0-3 Albirex – Singapore Premier League
13/09/16 Balestier 0-1 Albirex – Singapore Cup
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR:
Ryujiro Yamanaka (Albirex Niigata FC (S))
It is a testament to Albirex’s strength in depth that a fringe player can step in and do a sterling job in the absence of a first teamer. Without the injured Adam, Yamanaka came to the fore with two goals and an assist in the White Swans’ 4-3 win over Tampines. The 22-year-old left winger may well retain his starting spot as he comes up against a tough tackler in Fadli on his flank.
Vedran Mesec (Balestier Khalsa FC)
With Linderboom stealing the limelight with his goal-getting exploits, Mesec has been quietly producing the goods for the Tigers – showing his versatility by slotting in the middle of the park as well as playing off the front man. The 30-year-old also packs a good shot from distance and he will be relishing the opportunity to grab a third goal of the season in this game.
WHAT ELSE THEY SAID:
Albirex midfielder Daiki Asaoka: “I have a good relationship with Wataru Murofushi in midfield and we understand each other’s roles. I help out in the defensive part so that he can support the attack. I model my game after Manchester City’s Fernandinho because he plays a similar role to mine and my goal as a footballer is just to become a better player than yesterday. Balestier’s a tough team to play against, so we’ll not let them try to execute what they’ve been practicing in their training.”
Balestier defender Fadli Kamis: “It was unlucky for us to lose 1-0 to them (Albirex) earlier in the season and luck wasn’t really on our side that day. We have a few defenders missing for this game but we just have to focus and stick to Coach Marko’s instructions to get a result.”