No Sano, no problem as Albirex thrash title-pretenders Tampines

Defending S.League champions Albirex Niigata (S) have been forced to play the past three matches without hotshot striker Tsubasa Sano – and they have responded with three straight wins.

The 23-year-old forward has been nursing an ankle injury for the past three games and although he appeared on the bench, he did not play a part in Saturday’s 4-0 victory over second-placed Tampines Rovers.

The Japanese side extended their lead at the top of the table to 12 points at Jurong East Stadium, albeit having played two games more than the Stags.

We have no chance in a direct duel with Albirex to close the gap ... we have to focus on the battle for second place

- Jurgen Raab

Afterwards, Tampines coach Jurgen Raab conceded that the title race is now over for his side.

“Congratulations to Albirex. If we just be honest, the title is out for us,” he said in his post-match press conference.

“We have no chance in a direct duel with Albirex to close the gap. So we must hope for other teams to do their job and we have to do ours. We have to focus on the battle for second place.”

It has been almost two years since the White Swans lost at home – a 1-0 defeat against Tampines back in November 2015, when V. Sundramoorthy was in charge – winning their 24th straight home game on Saturday night.

Albirex had the majority of the possession in the first half, keeping it compact and limiting Tampines to hopeful long balls and shots from outside the box.

Raab admits the title race is over for his club

But it was Tampines who had the first chance of the game. In the seventh minute, the talismanic Khairul Amri cut the ball back to Hafiz Sujad, but he failed to direct his shot towards the goal.

Hafiz would end up regretting his missed chance no less than five minutes later, when Stags’ defender Madhu Mohana brought down forward Ryota Nakai in the 12th minute.

Dead ball specialist Kento Nagasaki stepped up to take the resulting free-kick and expertly curled the ball in to the top left, with Tampines custodian Izwan Mahbud rooted to the ground.

And it did not take long for Albirex to double their lead. Gathering the ball well outside the box, Nakai let loose a dipping shot in the 16th minute. Izwan failed to deal with the bounce of the ball, which ended up in the back of the net.

The game was then over as a contest for Jurgen Raab’s side when defender Yasutaka Yanagi headed in Nagasaki’s corner to make it 3-0 in just the 22nd minute.

Realising his team had nothing to lose, Raab decided to change things up and brought on Fazrul Nawaz for captain Fahrudin Mustafic as Tampines switched to a three-man defence.

Then at half-time Shahdan Sulaiman, arguably Tampines’ best player of the first half, was substituted for 21-year-old Faizal Raffi.

Khairul was well held by the White Swans' defence

The eager youngster brought to the pitch the energy that was lacking from Tampines in the first half, despite giving the ball away with his first touch.

It was a much better performance by the Stags early in the second half as they relentlessly threw everything they had at Albirex, but the Japanese kept disciplined and compact, soaking up the attacks.

Tampines’ best chance of the game came in the 64th minute when forward Ryutaro Megumi intercepted Albirex captain Shuto Inaba’s pass in the middle of the park.

We had a wonderful season (last year). We had a lot of records. My aim is to surpass all the records and please the fans more

- Yoshinaga Kazuaki

Megumi threaded the ball through to Amri, who only had the keeper to beat, but he ended up shooting wide.

The final nail in the coffin came against the run of play, when Inaba won the ball in the midfield and split Tampines’ defence with a pass to Nakai, who slotted it past a helpless Izwan for his second goal of the game.

In a press conference after the game, Albirex head coach Yoshinaga Kazuaki said: “I emphasised to the players that we have to work harder and we cannot lose to them because they will fight hard … this is the third time (playing against Tampines) and we cannot lose to them.”

At this point, Albirex has scored more goals than the whole of last season, but Kazuaki insists the job is still not complete.

“I wouldn’t say that I am pleased because this is just part of the process,” he said.

“Ultimately, we want to reach our target. As I said at the beginning of this year, we had a wonderful season (last year). We had a lot of records. My aim is to surpass all the records and please the fans more.

Regarding Sano’s absence, Kazuaki said: “If we needed goals today, I would have put him (Sano) in.”

Photos: S.League