Kumada winner sends Albirex four points clear once more
Faced with a resolute Balestier Khalsa side that frustrated them for much of the 93-odd minutes, the leaders still found a way to eke out a slender 1-0 victory.
That allowed them to move four points clear of second-placed Tampines Rovers with five games left, though head coach Naoki Naruo remained stoic about gaining some breathing space again.
I think we have to improve the ideas in front of goal and also the accuracy of our shooting and crossing. I am unsatisfied with the performance and we need to improve more
“I don’t think there was any effect on our game-plan tonight,” he said, referring to the Stags’ 2-1 loss to Hougang United the night before. “We [still] have to win all the remaining games to win the title.”
It was an uncharacteristic performance from the White Swans, who struggled to find fluency in their play and looked clueless in trying to break down their opponents.
Atsushi Kawata and Atsushi Shirota each skied good chances over for the league’s top-scoring side, while teammates Kento Nagasaki, Masaya Jitozono and Shuto Inaba popped off wayward attempts from range.
Naruo was happy with the victory, but not the manner in which it was achieved.
“We wanted to score more goals tonight,” he said unblinkingly. “I think we have to improve the ideas in front of goal and also the accuracy of our shooting and crossing.
“I am unsatisfied with the performance and we need to improve more.”
It was left to Rui Kumada, who started the season at centre-back but has led the line in recent games, to become the hero.
A disguised reverse pass from Kawata played in Naofumi Tanaka inside the box and the wing-back’s low, hard ball from the left was met by Kumada’s outstretched right foot from close range on 13 minutes.
Balestier goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam was injured in a collision while trying to prevent the goal and had to be taken off on a stretcher and was reportedly sent to hospital for further checks.
I am very proud of them, the way they were putting pressure and trying their best
Head coach Marko Kraljevic revealed he was unsure of his captain’s status after the game, but had only praise for his charges’ display.
They were missing key trio Fazli Ayob, Emir Lotinac and Fadhil Noh, but still nearly prevented Albirex from scoring in a league game for only the third time this season.
“I am very proud of them, the way they were putting pressure and trying their best; even when we had to put in our second-choice goalkeeper (Naqiuddin Nodin), we looked good [at the back],” he said.
They could have even stolen something from the game in the final minutes.
First, substitute Zulkiffli Hassim scuffed his shot from 12 yards right at Yosuke Nozawa after Niko Tokic set him up on 88 minutes.
Then, the Albirex custodian made a superb save to push Sheikh Abdul Hadi’s injury-time header on to the post to preserve his 10th clean sheet of the season.
“We tried very hard, from the beginning to the end,” said Kraljevic, whose side will face Albirex again in the Singapore Cup semi-finals in three weeks’ time.
“I am not sure if we would have deserved [a result], but this gives me a lot of confidence for the Cup [games].”
Main photo: FAS