The FourFourTwo Preview: Albirex Niigata (S) vs Balestier Khalsa
A battle of styles between possession and direct football.
ALBIREX NIIGATA (S) FORM
- Geylang 0-3 Albirex (League Cup)
- Albirex 2-0 Sporting Westlake (League Cup)
- Albirex 2-0 Home United (League Cup)
- Albirex 2-1 Svay Rieng (Singapore Cup)
- Albirex 0-4 Warriors FC (S.League)
BALESTIER KHALSA FORM
- Balestier 3-2 Hougang (League Cup)
- Tampines 2-2 Balestier (League Cup)
- Balestier 4-0 Warriors FC (League Cup)
- Geylang 2-2 Balestier (S.League)
- Balestier 1-2 Warriors FC (S.League)
So it all comes down to this one final match to decide which team takes out the first piece of silverware on offer in Singapore for the 2015 season.
First up is favourites Albirex Niigata (Singapore), who have been the longest-serving foreign club in the history of the S.League. While they only have the 2011 League Cup triumph to show for since their inception 11 years ago, their sound management off the field has ensured the club continues to thrive whereas the likes of Sinchi FC, Sporting Afrique and Etoile FC have faded away into history.
An impressive 2014 season, where they managed to stay in the title hunt till the final week, seemed to have fuelled their trophy-winning aspirations as they amassed one of their strongest-looking squads in recent years. The new arrivals include former J.League players Yosuke Nozawa and Fumiya Kogure, as well as exciting talents plucked fresh from university in the form of Rion Taki and Atsushi Kawata.
Thus it should be no surprise to see them sitting pretty in second in the 10-team S.League table, with 23 points collected from 12 games – one point behind leaders Warriors FC with a game in hand. Things are also going smoothly for them in their cup endeavours, having beaten Cambodian side Svay Rieng 2-1 to reach the RHB Singapore Cup quarter-finals and also making this League Cup final.
Having breezed through the group stages with identical 2-0 wins against Home United and semi-professional outfit Sporting Westlake, the White Swans went on to dispatch Geylang International 3-0 in their semi-final. To date, they conceded just nine goals in 16 games across all competitions.
However with that all said, Balestier Khalsa have no reason to fear, as the plucky side have thrived on their ‘underdogs’ tag for the past couple of seasons. Previously known as a club which struggled to finish out of the bottom two, the Tigers are now revitalised and punching above their weight.
After a stunning 4-0 upset of Brunei DPMM in the 2013 League Cup final which brought them their first ever trophy, they followed it up last year by beating Home United 3-1 to lift their first RHB Singapore Cup.
The signs were not good for them in pre-season though, having lost several key players Paul Cunningham, Park Kang-Jin and Goran Ljubojevic and making the headlines for their unusual move of recruiting players via an online job advert. However the new-look side have continued to fare well in the league and are now placed fourth, with 14 points from 10 games.
The Tigers carried their decent form into the Cup where they successfully made their way out of what many dubbed as the ‘Group of Death’, which included the league champions of the last two years, Tampines Rovers and Warriors FC. They finished top of the group with a 4-0 thrashing of the Warriors and a 2-2 draw against the Stags, before progressing into the final via a thrilling 3-2 win against Hougang United.
Marko Kraljevic’s side now have the opportunity to make it a hat-trick of cup titles in the past three years. Can they do it, or will the White Swans claim their second trophy in Singapore football?
Both sides are expected to field their strongest sides, given that there are no suspensions coming into this game.
For Albirex, captain and goalkeeper Nozawa will be in goal with the rock-solid centre-back pairing of Kento Fujihara and Takahiro Saito lining up in front of him, while the two Yamadas, Itsuki and Mikiya, should continue at the full-back positions.
Shun Inaba and Hikaru Mizuno will do the dirty work in the middle of the park, leaving Kogure to pull the strings and support the three-pronged attack of Rui Kumada, Kawata and Taki.
In the Balestier camp, Emir Lotinac and Igor Cerina will form the last line of defence in front of keeper Zaiful Nizam, with the diminutive duo of Ahmad Syahir and Ho Wai Loon playing as full-backs.
Poh Yifeng and Tarik Cmajcanin will be the brains in the middle of the park, while Fadhil Noh and Zulkiffli Hassim are in charge of getting balls in from wide areas for the tall striking duo of Robert Pericic and Miroslav Kristic to bulge the net.
Meanwhile do expect Shotaro Ihata and Ignatius Ang to come on for their respective sides late on to change the game. Ihata scored a wonder goal to decide matters between the two sides in a league clash in March, while Ang came off the bench to produce an exquisite match-winning lob in the semi-final against Hougang.
Key Battle: Yosuke Nozawa vs Miroslav Kristic
For Balestier to stand any chance of toppling the White Swans, they will need Kristic to keep up his good form in this competition. The 25-year-old hit a perfect hat-trick (right foot, header then left foot) to sink the Warriors in the group stage before landing a brace against Hougang in the semis.
Currently joint-top of the scoring charts along with Geylang’s Bruno Castanheira with five goals, he will surely be eying the chance to claim the Golden Boot on his own.
However he will come up against one of the best shot-shoppers in Singapore, if not the best, in Nozawa. The 35-year-old, who has played for parent club Albirex and Shonan Bellmare in the Japanese top flight, has been a calming influence on a young Albirex side and has already kept 11 clean sheets in 16 games.
The Coaches – Battle of the second-year gaffers
Interestingly both coaches are still in the infancy of their coaching careers, with 2015 being their second years at the helm.
39-year-old Tatsuyuki Okuyama started out as a youth coach at parent club Albirex in the early 2000s then moved on to take charge of the Albirex Niigata Ladies’ team from 2008 to 2012, before succeeding Koichi Sugiyama in the White Swans hot seat before the 2014 season.
Meanwhile Marko Kraljevic, 10 years his senior, was managing the Prime League sides of Balestier and Woodlands Wellington before he made the step up to become the Tigers’ head coach last year. The German-Croat found immediate success in his first year coaching a professional outfit as he led his side to a surprise Singapore Cup triumph.
So will Okuyama lift his first silverware as Albirex coach, or will Kraljevic win his second trophy in as many years?
Facts and Figures
- Only two finals have gone to extra-time. Both were eventually settled by penalties, with DPMM edging SAFFC (now Warriors FC) in 2009 and Albirex beating Hougang in 2011.
- It is fairly poised in terms of head-to-head records between both teams. Both sides have faced each other 18 times in history, with each side winning seven times while the other five matches ended up in draws.
- Shotora Ihata is the only remaining player from the 2011 League Cup-winning Albirex side, while Zaiful, Zakariah Nerani, Yusiskandar Yusop, Ridwan Jamil, Poh Yifeng and Zulkkifli remain from the 2013 League Cup-winning Balestier side.
- Six players (Nozawa, Fujihara, Saito, I. Yamada, Mizuno and Inaba) have started in all 16 games across all competitions this season for Albirex, while only two (Zaiful and Kristic) have similarly started in all 19 games (including AFC Cup games) for Balestier.
FFT.com Editor Zee Ko: Albirex have been impressive this season, but I'm backing Balestier based on their cup pedigree. Kraljevic to show why he's such a highly rated coach with a 2-1 win.
Kenneth Tan: Albirex to win it 2-0. While Balestier have impressed many with yet another good cup run, but it takes something special to break down this White Swans side. Goals towards the end of each half to settle the tie for Okuyama’s side.
VoxSports’ Nigel Chin: Balestier to triumph on penalties after a 2-2 draw in regulation time. A victory for the Tigers’ will be a testament to how much the club has grown in the last three years, especially the last two under Kraljevic.
Yahoo Sports’ Teng Kiat: Balestier to take this 1-0. Albirex have been impressive this season but I have a sneaky feeling that Kraljevic will come up with a plan to stop them and lead his side to an upset.
The New Paper’s Haiqal Sari: Balestier to win 2-1. While the White Swans have the best defensive record (zero goals conceded in three games) in the Cup, Balestier's big men up front in the form of Pericic and top scorer Kristic will get the job done for the Tigers with their sheer physical power.
The Straits Times’ Deepanraj Ganesan: Balestier to win 2-1. With the motivation of winning a third cup in three years, I expect them to edge Albirex out in this final.