Another narrow victory keeps White Swans’ quadruple hopes alive
It will be the second appearance in the competition’s final in two years for the White Swans and keeps their dreams of securing an unprecedented quadruple alive.
Rui Kumada’s 82nd minute header secured the one-goal victory and ended Balestier’s hopes of making a comeback in the second leg, at a time when the Tigers were putting tremendous pressure on the White Swans.
Despite dominating possession, Albirex were unable to reproduce their slick passing game on the bumpy Toa Payoh pitch.
As a result, most of their chances came via set-pieces, but they were unable to take any real advantage.
Balestier’s attack was very dangerous and if we made one mistake we would struggle. Our defenders had to concentrate very hard
Twice, Tatsuro Inui found a teammate from the corner, but Atsushi Shirota’s header was deflected over in the fifth minute, while Atsushi Kawata’s effort seven minutes later was too tame to trouble Balestier goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam.
Inui himself had a go from a free-kick in the 17th minute, but sent his effort just wide of Zaiful’s right-hand post.
Albirex survived a scare just minutes later when custodian Eita Kasagawa, starting in place of the injured Yosuke Nozawa, sent a clearance into the back of Fadhil Noh, only for it to drop inches wide of the goal.
Their dominance continued for the rest of the half, but Inui was twice denied by the ever-present Zaiful, before Miroslav Kristic volleyed one wide down the other end on the stroke of half-time in a rare chance for the hosts.
The tide changed in the second half, however, with Marko Kraljevic’s men showing more inclination to attack.
Niko Tokic had a superb opportunity in the 53rd minute after beating his markers to a high ball, but sent his shot soaring into the night sky.
A minute later, the Croatian turned provider for strike partner Kristic, but this time the latter’s low effort was too weak.
Their profligacy continued well into the second half, Shah Hirul guilty of spurning another decent chance by shooting way over with the goal at his mercy after Kasagawa’s punched clearance fell nicely for him.
Ten minutes before time, Ahmad Syahir found Tokic with a pinpoint cross, only for the latter to plant his header well wide of the goal.
That set the stage for Kumada’s winner two minutes later, as he outjumped both Zaiful and Nurullah Hussein to guide Naofumi Tanaka’s floated cross into the empty net to seal the victory.
Albirex coach Naoki Naruo pointed out that it wasn’t an easy match for his charges, but he was glad that they were able to come through.
“When we play on a normal turf, we get a little bit nervous and it’s difficult to play our passing game,” Naruo said.
Last 20 minutes I gambled a bit and changed the formation and started going on the attack, but we were not able to get the goal
“We showed what we can do on this kind of pitch so I’m satisfied.”
He added it was always going to be a tough ask to prevent Balestier from scoring, especially given the way the Tigers were piling on the pressure, and he felt “very happy” to keep a clean sheet in the game.
“Balestier’s attack was very dangerous and if we made one mistake we would struggle. Our defenders had to concentrate very hard to get the clean sheet,” he said.
On the other hand, Kraljevic felt his players had given everything they could, but the result just would not come for them.
“We stopped them from passing. We put pressure on them by defending high and we defended well and did our job very well,” Kraljevic explained.
“Last 20 minutes I gambled a bit and changed the formation to 4-3-3 and started going on the attack, but we were not able to get the goal because their defence was much better than in the last game. They really stopped us.
“I’m happy with the performance, but not the result.”
Albirex will now face Tampines in the final, looking to add to the Community Shield and League Cups they have already claimed this year, while they are also in the box seat to take out the S.League for the first time.
Main photo: Albirex Niigata (S)