Star Man – Yosuke Nozawa, Albirex Niigata

When Yosuke Nozawa faces the likes of Jermaine Pennant, former ally Fumiya Kogure and top marksman Khairul Amri this season, the 36-year-old goalkeeper will be wary of their undeniable talents in what looms as one of the most competitive and entertaining S-League seasons for some time.

But don’t let his innocent smile and gentle demeanour fool you – Nozawa's gloves are tightened and he’s prepared for what’s ahead. After all, he was between the posts throughout Albirex Niigata’s campaign last season, helping the club win both the Singapore Cup and the League Cup in the process.

“The league’s standard has improved and will have many players from Lions XII, so we have to improve ourselves. Personally for me, I am very excited to play against the stronger-looking S-League teams,” said the White Swans’ custodian.

“As for Pennant, I haven’t really watched him play, so I don’t know what to expect.”

The S-League has been strengthened since the disbanded Lions XII players joined some of the teams. The most expensive signing in the league’s 21-year history, former Liverpool and Arsenal winger Pennant, was also brought in by Tampines in hopes of increasing their chances of winning the title.

We have been talking about winning the league and this year we feel we have to

Albirex, on the other hand, have suffered some heavy blows due to the departure of several key players, reigning S.League player of the year Kogure, who is now with Hougang. However, Nozawa believes that Atsushi Kawata will take over from Fumiya to fill that playmaking role.

“One player that is similar to Kogure is Kawata and he will be the key player, for me, this season to help improve on scoring more goals from last season. Besides that, many things are going to be new this year. We have a new artificial pitch and I have to get used to it too, but there is no excuses, we will be more aggressive from last season.”

Nozawa was one of the integral members of the squad that had their most successful campaign last season.

This year they are keen to bring an elusive S.League title to Jurong Stadium, something which has never been won by the Japanese outfit.

“I hope we can do better than last year, we won the two titles and that was a good season for us,” he said. “We have been talking about winning the league more and more and this year we feel that we have to. We want the teamwork to be better than last year and get the important points against the big teams.”

One of the most senior players in the squad, Nozawa aims to help the younger players whenever he can and impart his footballing wisdom.

Coach Naoki Naruo and Nozawa were once teammates at Albirex Niigata Japan in 2000 and will be hoping that their former chemistry will be reignited, albeit this time with one on the sideline and the other between the goalposts.

“We have retained only four or five players while the rest are fairly new,” Nozawa said. “Of course as a senior member, I will try to help the younger players when I can. Naruo on the other hand, was my teammate before and we have been in contact ever since our playing days.”

Nozawa has over 350 professional appearances from his time in the J.League and the S.League.

But he doesn’t have any plans to hang up his gloves just yet.

“I take inspiration from Yazid Yasin from the Warriors, who is still playing as a goalkeeper at 36. I still think I have a lot to offer and I can play for two or more three seasons at the top level.”

Liked this 2016 S.League preview? Click here now to read even more features and interviews of your favourite clubs and players.

Photo: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo