In the absence of key players Kenya Takahashi and Shuhei Hoshino, Captain Wataru Murofushi delivered a virtuoso performance with a brace proving to be the difference for Albirex Niigata FC (S) in a 3-2 comeback win over Home United in the first leg of the RHB Singapore Cup semi-final tie at Jurong East Stadium on Wednesday night.
Home had led 2-1 at half time with Hafiz Nor’s early strike and SHuhei Sasahara’s own goal cancelling out Adam Swandi’s leveller for Albirex.
However the White Swans rallied in the second half with Murofushi netting a scorcher and a penalty to complete a 3-2 comeback win and take a one-goal lead going into next Wednesday’s second leg at Bishan Stadium.
The result meant the Japanese side extended their unbeaten home run to an incredible 40 matches, having last suffered defeat there in November 2015.
With marauding full-back Takahashi and chief forward Hoshino unavailable due to suspension, Albirex Coach Kazuaki Yoshinga was forced to reshuffle his pack as he opted to slot Riyu Moriyasu at left-back while deploying 1.9m defender Shun Kumagai as the target man upfront.
As a result, Kaishu Yamazaki was chosen to fill Kumagai’s void at the back as he made his first appearance since coming off injured in a 2-1 Singapore Premier League (SPL) win over Hougang United in early July.
Yamazaki understandably looked rusty after months of inactivity and it was his mistake that led to Home opening the scoring after just two minutes.
With the 21-year-old failing to get rid of Abdil Qaiyyim’s long ball, Hafiz stole in to poke the ball to Shahril Ishak. The latter returned the favour to Hafiz, who wasted no time in firing a confident first-time finish inside Yohsuke Nozawa’s near post for his ninth goal in all competitions.
That goal stung Albirex into action as they duly levelled matters just 10 minutes later.
Taku Morinaga started the move by riding two challenges on the left before producing a low cross into the area for Adam. The Singaporean did well to swivel before firing a crisp left-footed finish into the bottom right corner for his second goal in as many games.
The White Swans were uncharacteristically sloppy in possession in the first half though, as they paid the price for another defensive error to go 2-1 down in 36 minutes.
Having initially won possession, Moriyasu dawdled on the ball in his own area and that led to Iqram Rifqi stealing it off him. The latter then expertly skipped past two challenges on the left byline, before squaring across the goalmouth where Sasahara inadvertently diverted into his own net past a bemused Nozawa.
Albirex could have equalised again just before half-time, but Kumagai’s header off Moriyasu’s left-wing cross rattled the crossbar with Home goalkeeper Kenji Rusydi beaten all hands down.
The White Swans carried that momentum into the second half and as they duly restored parity for a second time on 59 minutes.
After a superb driving run into the attacking third, Murofushi exchanged passes with Kumagai before eking out a yard of space on the edge of the area to drill a stunning drive into the top left corner past a rooted Kenji.
Yoshinaga’s men kept pushing forward and they would get their rewards in the 75th minute.
With Ryujiro Yamanaka’s shot adjudged by Referee Muhammad Zulfiqar to be handled by Faritz Hameed on the line, Murofushi stepped up and coolly sent Kenji the wrong way from 12 yards out for his 10th goal of the season to put his side 3-2 up.
Their night would end on a slightly sour note though as Morinaga was harshly given a straight red on the stroke of full time for what was deemed as a foul on Faritz.
Albirex held on to secure a slender one-goal win on the night, with all to play for in the second leg next Wednesday.
Firstly both sides will need to contend with their final SPL fixtures this Saturday, with Albirex facing Warriors FC at Choa Chu Kang Stadium while Home take on Tampines Rovers FC at Our Tampines Hub.
Albirex Niigata FC (S) Head Coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga: “We were playing the AFC Cup ASEAN champions, which is a very strong team. The goals which we conceded in the first half were mistakes. Kaishu was playing in his first game for almost three months so he made an unacceptable mistake for the first goal.
“We still played the same formation (despite missing two players) and we believe in what we’re doing. Apart from Nozawa, Kumagai is the only player in this team that had played in J1 League with Venforet Kofu and even scored a goal as a forward there. So it’s not that he has no experience playing upfront.
“We just need to concentrate on recovery and fight together as a team for the second leg.”
Home United FC Assistant Coach Saswadimata Dasuki: “We thought that we could be the first team to beat Albirex this year, but we lacked concentration in the final quarter of the game. We were quite comfortable at 2-1 and the game plan was to get another goal. But they got space in the middle to score a second and the subsequent penalty could have been a ball to hand.
“I hope we get a better referee for the second leg because it’s a big game for both teams. We didn’t play Song (Ui-young) today because we’re still running for second place in the SPL and there’s a big game this weekend against Tampines, where we need at least a draw. We don’t want him to get injured and lose him for that game.”
Albirex Niigata FC (S): Yohsuke Nozawa (GK), Hiroyoshi Kamata, Shuhei Sasahara, Kaishu Yamazaki, Riku Moriyasu, Ryujiro Yamanaka, Daiki Asaoka, Wataru Murofushi (C), Adam Swandi, Taku Morinaga, Shun Kumagai
Home United FC: Kenji Rusydi (GK), Faritz Hameed, Abdil Qaiyyim, Faizal Roslan, Shakir Hamzah, Izzdin Shafiq (C), Hafiz Nor, M. Anumanthan (Amy Recha 80’), Isaka Cernak (Aqhari Abdullah 86’), Iqram Rifqi (Fazli Ayob 89’), Shahril Ishak