After seeing their 38-game winning streak at home ended by Hougang United over the weekend, Albirex Niigata FC (S) are looking to revert to their usual high standards when they host Home United in the first leg of their RHB Singapore Cup semi-final tie at Jurong East Stadium on Saturday night.
The White Swans never saw it coming, but Hougang – of all teams – became the ones to end their almost three-year long winning streak at their Jurong East fortress.
Albirex were stunned by Shahfiq Ghani’s late free-kick equaliser on Sunday as the bottom-placed Cheetahs stole a 2-2 Singapore Premier League (SPL) draw to spoil their SPL title party.
That was only the second time that the White Swans let in more than one goal in a match this season, with evergreen goalkeeper Yohsuke Nozawa out to avoid a similar scenario against a Home side that have plundered 76 goals across three competitions this season.
“Of course it was a big disappointment against Hougang – it was regrettable that a lot of supporters came for our final home league match and we could not reward them with a win,” the 38-year-old told FOX Sports Asia.
“Our team this year is ‘incomplete’ in a word. There are still things to work on as individuals and as a team, although there is ability and growth margin from last year’s team.
“Home U is a solid team, but I do not think there are any players that cannot be stopped. If we keep our focus and concentration in the 90 minutes, we should not be conceding any goals.”
After coming within a whisker of defeating Kazuaki Yoshinaga’s men in a 1-1 league draw at Bishan Stadium in August, the Protectors will be looking for a positive result to take back to their home ground for the second leg a week later.
Since exiting the AFC Cup in the inter-zonal semi-finals stage, Aidil Sharin’s outfit have benefited from the extra rest in between matches as they put together a three-match winning run – with league wins against Hougang (2-1) and Warriors FC (4-3) sandwiching a 3-1 away win at Tampines Rovers, which ensured they overturned a 2-1 first-leg deficit to progress into the Singapore Cup last four.
Song Ui-young has been the talisman for them, with five goals in those three outings. With the South Korean forward in such red-hot form going into the business end of the season, defender Faizal Roslan believes there is every chance they can topple the Albirex juggernaut.
“Song has been such a crucial player for us… he’s doing well upfront, scoring and assisting goals,” said the 23-year-old, who has played every minute of their SPL campaign this season.
“He’s a player who can change the game. With him partnering Shahril Ishak upfront, it’s a fantastic strike combination to have. The past few weeks have been great for us. With focus and intense training, the team is feeling very confident at the moment.
“Winning the Singapore Cup will be massive for us… after what the team has achieved so far this year, I feel that we really deserve to win a cup.”
The odds are, however, stacked against Home ending Albirex’s 39-game unbeaten home streak, as they have suffered five losses and gotten just one draw in their last six visits to Jurong East.
The last time the Protectors won at the venue was back in May 2013 when they prevailed 3-2 on extra time in a RHB Singapore Cup preliminary round game. It was none other than Song, who struck a 117th–minute winner to set them on their way to winning the Cup that year.
TEAM NEWS: Albirex have a couple of problems to contend with, as attacking full-back Kenya Takahashi and leading marksman Shuhei Hoshino are both suspended for this tie.
Centre-back Kaishu Yamazaki has already been ruled out of the season due to injury.
As for Home, they have a largely fit squad to call upon with defender Shakir Hamzah returning from suspension.
Kenji Rusydi will continue to deputise in goal as first-choice custodian Rudy Khairullah is out for the season.
Albirex Niigata FC (S): WWWWD
Home United FC: LLWWW
12/08/18 Home 1-1 Albirex – Singapore Premier League
09/06/18 Albirex 3-0 Home – Singapore Premier League
18/04/18 Home 1-6 Albirex – Singapore Premier League
30/09/17 Home 1-2 Albirex – Singapore Cup
27/09/17 Albirex 3-1 Home – Singapore Cup
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR:
Shun Kumagai (Albirex Niigata FC (S))
It was a mixed outing for the 1.9m centre-back the other night, as he scored the White Swans’ second goal but also conceded the penalty and free-kick that led to the two Hougang goals. No matter what, it was a good lesson for the 22-year-old as he looks to do better against Shahril and Song.
Song Ui-young (Home United FC)
Injury disrupted his campaign midway through, but he has since returned with vengeance – making up for lost time with a number of goalscoring performances. The 28-year-old South Korean has already struck 20 goals in all competitions and he will be relishing the opportunity to test his wits against a usually-reliable Albirex defence.
WHAT ELSE THEY SAID:
Albirex goalkeeper: Yohsuke Nozawa: “For the Singapore Cup semi-finals, no big game is needed. We just need to prepare our minds and bodies well.
“I have better results than I expected before the season. However, not all players are satisfied with their play. If I could play here again next year, I would definitely love to remain playing in Singapore.”
Home defender Faizal Roslan: “Playing with Home United on a regular basis has definitely been a good experience for me. I’ve learned a lot and also gained new experiences through playing so many games. This wouldn’t have happened if not for Coach Aidil’s faith in me. As shocked as I am for the opportunity given, I am grateful.
“I have to thank the senior players too for guiding me during training. I’ve learnt a lot playing alongside Juma’at Jantan and Abdil Qaiyyim. It would be a lie to say that I’m not disappointed in missing out on being nominated for SPL Young Player of the Year, but that I’ll take as a challenge and come back even stronger.”