Albirex Niigata FC (S) will be presented with the first-ever Singapore Premier League (SPL) trophy after their home game at Jurong East Stadium against Hougang United FC on Sunday evening, but the visitors are determined to play party poopers as they search for a silver lining in a miserable season.
Week after week, Albirex have managed to conquer whatever obstacle that has come in their way and they are now just two games away from being the first-ever team in the league’s 23-year history to go a full season unbeaten.
It has been an outstanding campaign for the White Swans, despite retaining just two players from last season’s quadruple-winning team and reverting to a largely Under-23 squad – with the exception being 39-year-old goalkeeper Yohsuke Nozawa.
Having sewn up the title with six league matches to go, Kazuaki Yoshinaga’s charges have showed no signs of slowing down – notching up five wins and one draw across two competitions thereafter.
Next up is their final home league game of the season against Hougang when they will be presented with the inaugural SPL trophy after the final whistle and that is reason enough for the White Swans’ class of 2018 to put up a good show.
“I would like everyone who supports us to see how the team can fight to the end,” Yoshinaga told FOX Sports Asia. “So it’s necessary for us to put up a good display and play to our usual standards.
“This (on the brink of an unbeaten season) is the result of the mentality of the players who always want to win. As professional players, they always strive to improve and bring their abilities to the next level.”
Albirex have been absolutely invincible at home in recent seasons, as they are currently on an incredible 38-game winning run at their Jurong East den that stretches all the way back to November 2015.
Nonetheless, a wounded Hougang outfit are determined not to show up just for congratulatory handshakes at the White Swans’ title party. After a disappointing 2-1 home defeat to Home United that consigned to a first bottom-placed finish in four years, the Cheetahs are out to prove that they are better than what their position suggests.
“We never expected to finish bottom so it is indeed difficult to swallow at times,” said Hougang Vice-captain Fabian Kwok. “Our performances have not been that bad in most games, losing so narrowly so many times especially.
“There is nothing for us to lose really at this point of time and we want to seek revenge against Albirex, for so many times we came close to getting a result against them but failed to. There seems to be a real rivalry whenever we meet Albirex.
“Personally I would hate to see them going unbeaten the entire season and I believe all the other local clubs, players and officials share a similar sentiment with me. This time round we have to make the chances count if we want to break their unbeaten record.”
TEAM NEWS: Barring centre-back Kaishu Yamazaki who is out for the season due to a knee injury, Albirex have a largely fit squad to call upon.
As for Hougang, Iqbal Hussain will also miss the rest of the campaign due to broken ribs but they will welcome Syahiran Miswan, Muhaimin Suhaimi and Fareez Farhan back from suspension.
Albirex Niigata FC (S): DWWWW
Hougang United FC: LLLLL
01/09/18 Albirex 2-0 Hougang – Singapore Cup
29/08/18 Hougang 0-1 Albirex – Singapore Cup
04/07/18 Hougang 1-2 Albirex – Singapore Premier League
06/05/18 Albirex 1-0 Hougang – Singapore Premier League
19/10/17 Albirex 1-0 Hougang – Singapore Premier League
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR:
Taku Morinaga (Albrex Niigata FC (S))
It looks like he will fall short of his 20-goal target set by club chairman Daisuke Korenaga, but nonetheless it has been a superb season by Morinaga. Standing at just 1.53m, the diminutive 23-year-old has threatened many defenders with his searing pace and formed a telepathic understanding with Shuhei Hoshino in a classic ‘big man-little man’ strike partnership. He will be out to show why he has been shortlisted for the SPL Young Player of the Year.
Shahfiq Ghani (Hougang United FC)
It has been a long time coming, but Shahfiq finally netted his first goal in Cheetahs colours as he came off the bench to net a trademark free kick in last Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Home. The 26-year-old will be hoping that is enough to earn him a starting berth this time round as he looks to stake a late claim for inclusion into Singapore’s eventual AFF Suzuki Cup squad this November.
WHAT ELSE THEY SAID:
Albirex Head Coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga: “It is the strength of the players who have worked so hard to accept all challenges. I have not seen any surprises (from this unbeaten season) as I have seen the way such players strive.
“Now I’m thinking only of finishing the season successfully with this team. Nothing has been decided about my future and I have no plans at the moment.”
Hougang Vice-Captain Fabian Kwok: “Despite being bottom, we never backed down from any opponent and gave a big fight to most. This team has good talent and many upcoming young players, whom I believe will be honing their places in this league so I hope this opportunity given to them has been fruitful.
“My contract officially ends this season and I have yet to sign a new contract. I’ve been happy to be at Hougang for the past two years and being able to play a bigger role (as Vice-Captain) did help me in my development as a person as well.”
“There have been talks about overseas clubs opening slots for ASEAN players, mainly in Thailand. However having not been capped at the senior level, I doubt anything may materialise for me.”