Albirex Niigata (S) vs Tampines Rovers: Final hurdle in White Swans' quadruple bid
ALBIREX NIIGATA FORM
Albirex 1-5 Tampines Rovers (S.League)
Home United 3-1 Albirex (S.League)
Albirex 3-0 Hougang United (S.League)
Warriors FC 2-0 Albirex (S.League)
Albirex 1-0 Geylang International (S.League)
Albirex's shot at a unique quadruple, or Tampines' chance to salvage something from their season.
TAMPINES ROVERS FORM
Albirex Niigata (S) 1-5 Tampines Rovers (S.League)
Tampines 2-0 Balestier Khalsa (S.League)
Garena Young Lions 1-3 Tampines (S.League)
Tampines 0-1 Brunei DPMM (S.League)
Tampines 0-0 Bengaluru FC (AFC Cup SF Leg 2)
So here we go, the final game in the Singapore football calendar for 2016 before the Suzuki Cup commences in November.
Eleven months ago, the fraternity was lamenting the demise of the local clubs – with Brunei DPMM lifting the S.League title, while Albirex collected the League Cup and Singapore Cup.
It was thought back then that this could be a lesson for the likes of Home United, Tampines or even Warriors FC to buck up and challenge this season, but that simply has not been the case.
All-Japanese outfit Albirex have swept everything on offer so far, from the Charity Shield to the League Cup to the S.League title, and are now within sights of completing an unprecedented quadruple.
On and off the pitch, the White Swans have established themselves as the benchmark for others to follow. They have done their part to integrate into the local community since their inception in 2004 and have brought in the right players to play their expansive brand of football.
No one will disagree that they have the most complete team in the league, right from former J-League goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa to top scorer and forward Atsushi Kawata, as the Cup holders understandably go into this game as the favourites.
The star-studded Stags outfit – bolstered by eight former LionsXII players and a certain Jermaine Pennant – was at least expected to win the league by a canter, but simply was not consistent enough and dropped too many points in the title run-in.
To complicate matters, the players were told two weeks ago to accept drastic pay cuts in order to secure playing contracts for next season.
Such off-the-field matters certainly do not help their cause, thus credit has to be given for putting together a three-match winning run to end the league season just a point behind the winners.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
Albirex 1-5 Tampines (S.League, Oct '16)
Albirex 4-0 Tampines (League Cup SF, Jul '16)
Tampines 1-0 Albirex (S.League, Jun '16)
Albirex 1-0 Tampines (S.League, Apr '16)
Tampines 1-1 Albirex (Friendly, Jan '16)
One of those games, of course, was the 5-1 thrashing of the White Swans in an inconsequential game just three days before the final. While coach Akbar Nawas was quick to play down the significance of the result, it can only work wonders for his side's confidence.
Tampines arguably had the tougher route to the final as they had to overcome Philippines sides Global FC and Ceres La Salle over two legs respectively, while Albirex dispatched of local sides Geylang International and Balestier Khalsa over 180 minutes without much trouble.
Albirex have a fully fit squad to call upon, while Tampines will miss the suspended Jufri Taha and long-term injury out Fazrul Nawaz (knee).
Key Battle: Kento Nagasaki vs Izzdin Shafiq
In what is expected to be a tight game, the battle in the middle of the park could prove decisive.
Albirex's Kento Nagasaki is an elegant orchestrator with his superb range of passing and shots from distance, with six goals and 11 assists in all competitions.
Tampines' Izzdin Shafiq provides a bit more defensively with his industrious style of play and is likely to be entrusted with the responsibilities of shutting out the White Swan.
It looks like second time is the charm for Albirex's Naoki Naruo after his first stint at the club in 2009 yielded no trophies and a disappointing seventh-place league finish.
Spending five years back in his native Japan, where he managed to promote Grulla Morioka – a team made up of semi-professionals – to J-League 3 clearly helped the 42-year-old develop into the astute coach he is today.
Meanwhile it has been a baptism of fire for Tampines' Akbar Nawas, who had to take over at short notice in mid-season after V Sundramoorthy left to take up the Singapore national team post.
The former National Football Academy (NFA) mentor is still very much learning his trade at this level, but has to be lauded for his cavalier approach that made Tampines a much more exciting team to watch in the second half of the season.
Facts and Figures
- This is Albirex's third appearance in a Singapore Cup final – they were losing finalists in 2011 and winners in 2015.
- Tatsuro Inui is the only current Albirex player that featured in the 2011 final, when they lost 1-0 to Home United in extra time.
- There are seven surviving members from the 2015 winning squad: Yosuke Nozawa, Mikiya Yamada, Kento Fujihara, Rui Kumada and Atsushi Kawata were starters, while Nagasaki came off the bench to score a last-gasp winner in a 2-1 triumph over Home. Ryuki Matsuya was an unused substitute.
- Albirex are unbeaten in their last 10 Singapore Cup outings, with their last loss coming in a 2-1 quarter-final second leg defeat against DPMM in July 2014.
- This is Tampines' seventh Cup final appearance – they won it in 2002, 2004 and 2006 but lost subsequently in 2007, 2010 and 2012.
- The last time Tampines won the Singapore Cup, Pennant was playing for Liverpool in the English top-flight.
- Mustafic Fahrudin is the only current Tampines player who was part of the Stags' last Cup-winning squad. They edged Thailand's Chonburi 3-2 after extra time in the 2006 final.
- Mustafic, Jufri Taha and Ismadi Mukhtar are the only players who featured in the Stags' last Cup final appearance in 2012, where they lost 2-1 to Warriors FC.
Tampines will run Albirex close, but the White Swans always seem to find a winner at the end of the day. We're tipping Naruo's side to edge it 2-1 and complete the quadruple.
Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo