Southeast Asia’s football leagues are onto the final stretch and FourFourTwo presents its findings from over the week just passed…
Albirex Niigata deserve the S.League title
Leading from the start of the season, the title is almost in the bag for Albirex Niigata.
The White Swans have maintained impressive levels of consistency, with some of their performances so unmemorable yet vital in their fight for a first-ever league title. It has not been pretty at times, but such is the reality of a title-winning campaign.
Against Geylang International, Albirex huffed and puffed but struggled for fluency, especially in attack as top scorer Atsushi Kawata was absent. The visitors held out until the 78th minute at Jurong East Stadium but then Atsushi Shirota was left free in the penalty area to head home a corner.
If the centre-back and captain lifts the trophy –and it could happen very soon indeed– then he, and the team, may not even look back at this game. There have been many more memorable moments but it was a crucial strike.
Now there are seven points between Albirex and Tampines Rovers with four games remaining. It would be the most remarkable turnaround if the Rovers did manage to do it but it is just not going to happen.
Malaysian TV needs to be more imaginative
There were five games to choose from for broadcasters on Saturday evening. It was the penultimate round of games of the season and there were all kinds of exciting matches to be had.
There was Pahang at home to Penang. Bottom of the 12-team league against the team in tenth.
There was drama and huge tension in this game. It was the proverbial six-pointer at least. If Pahang lost then dreams of survival could be all but over and even if the Elephants won then there would still be work to do. Penang were also in serious trouble.
But Malaysian TV showed Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) at home to T-Team instead. This was the team that had already been crowned champions against one that was stuck in mid-table.
It is understandable that JDT are box-office winners but this was a game that was not much more than an end-of-season friendly. There were bigger and more important games but the broadcasters chose to ignore them.
Kawin is Asia's number one
To be honest, Southeast Asia is not a region best known for its goalkeeping talent but then you could say the same about the continent as a whole. Yet there is a number one who has impressive levels of consistency.
Kawin has been named the league's MVP for August and September. For a shot-stopper, that is truly impressive.
Muangthong have so many talented attacking players that it is easy for those further back to be overlooked.
The Kirins have stars such as Chanathip Songkrasin, Sarach Yooyen and Teerasil Dangda trying to break down the opposition –these are players that would walk int0 the starting elevens of most teams in the region.
Yet despite all those attacking talents, it is the man between the sticks who often makes the difference. At Chainat Hornbill, Muangthong had to fight for three points and without Kawin it would not have happened.
Muangthong are five points clear with three games left. For most teams that would be a mere cushion but with Kawin, the trophy is in safe hands.
Irfan Bakti has not failed at Felda
When many Malaysian clubs have been changing coaches with depressing regularity, Felda United have gone down a different path. Since Irfan Bakti took over in 2013, the Fighters won promotion and this season challenged Johor Darul Ta'zim for the title before eventually having to settle for second. This also means a place in the 2017 AFC Cup.
The boss said that he has failed to meet one of his KPI's in not winning a trophy this season and so was stepping down.
In doing so, he was keeping true to his word as he told FourFourTwo before the start of the season.
“At the end of 2016, it will be three years at the club and I must have won a trophy, otherwise my time at Felda could be considered a failure,” said Irfan.
He's wrong. Second behind JDT is no failure but a sign of improvement.
Southeast Asia needs more title races like Vietnam's
In Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, the title races were tense and exciting until one team pulled away in the final stages. Now Muangthong United and Albirex Niigata are odds-on to join Johor Darul Ta'zim on their countries’ respective championship podiums.
Not Vietnam though. The fight could not have been close. There were three teams in it going into the final game. Hai Phong had led for most of the season but a run of poor results in the second half of August had seen the team drop to second behind Hanoi T&T. Da Nang were waiting to take advantage of any slip-ups.
All three won on the final day meaning that Hanoi took a third title by virtue of scoring two goals more than Hai Phong. Da Nang were a point behind.
If only some other leagues were as close. We would be looking forward to a feast of action.