Albirex retain League Cup crown, eye two more titles

As they have done at the final whistle of every victory this year, the Albirex Niigata (S) squad performed a celebratory dance in front of their supporters on Saturday night at the Jalan Besar Stadium. 

It is a tradition the Japanese club implemented at the start of this season, but this one was slightly special – it also marked them winning their first trophy of 2016.

A 2-0 defeat of Brunei DPMM in the first ever all-foreign Cup final in Singapore football history saw Albirex win their second straight League Cup crown, and their third overall.

It is a triumph that head coach Naoki Naruo is hoping to build on for the remainder of the season, with his charges still on course to retain the Singapore Cup and four points clear as leaders in their pursuit of a first ever S.League title.

“Most of the local teams missed important players in this tournament due to Singapore national team call-ups, so now we have to prepare better when the league resumes to face them,” he said.

“After winning this, we can improve more in the league… I don’t think about the title, I just focus game by game.

“It won’t be easy to win all four trophies (including the Charity Shield) and we have to show our best performance in every game.”

Naruo admitted that the White Swans were not at their best in the first half in front of 2,010 spectators, but they still managed to take a half-time lead courtesy of their only shot on target on 42 minutes.

Picked out by Tatsuro Inui on the edge of the box, Rui Kumada shrugged off marker Abdul Aziz Tamit and turned to crack an unstoppable drive into the top left corner for his first goal of the season.

“I think [scoring] the first goal was very important for us as we didn’t have many chances,” Naruo opined. “That was why we could win the game.”

DPMM were more threatening, with Rafael Ramazotti and Adi Said forcing goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa into action, though Atsushi Kawata did fire into the side-netting after rounding custodian Wardun Yussof near the half-hour mark.

Adi spurned a great chance to equalise on 68 minutes when he broke free, only to see Nozawa get down smartly and parry his stinging low drive.

DPMM head coach Steve Kean believed that was the “turning point”, believing that his team would have been “in the ascendancy” if they had got on level terms.

Instead, Albirex went on to kill the game by exploiting the gaps that their opponents increasingly left behind in their pursuit of a goal.

On 79 minutes, Kawata ghosted in unmarked at the far post to head in Kento Nagasaki’s corner for his 18th goal in all competitions to wrap up victory.

Despite the defeat, Kean was satisfied with the way his charges performed over the course of the tournament, having won five matches in a row before their loss in this final.

“If you look at 2-0, you’d think it was easy for Albirex, but they wouldn’t say that if you asked them,” he asserted. “We are in a good place, the last few games have given us confidence and we’ve performed well.

“We’ve brought in some younger local players this year and their exposure over this season will go a long way towards their development for next year.

“It will be tough, but we have to try and win our remaining games. If we can finish [the season] strongly, that will be even better.”

The Scot, who applauded as Albirex captain Naofumi Tanaka lifted the trophy, also acknowledged the Japanese are favourites for the remaining two domestic titles.

“They have added a bit more experience for this season, which they didn’t have last year,” he explained.

“They are a tough team and it starts right from the goalkeeper… it really gives them the advantage in both the RHB Singapore Cup and league.”

Main Photo: S.League