Sublime Kawata treble sinks Tampines as Albirex march into League Cup final

He scored 11 times in all competitions last season for Albirex Niigata (S) to finish as their joint-top scorer, but Atsushi Kawata has taken his goalscoring prowess to a new height this season. 

The 23-year-old added three more to his tally on Tuesday night to make it 17 and counting, as the White Swans blew away Tampines Rovers with a 4-0 victory in the League Cup semi-final.

Kawata has carried over his prolific form from the S.League - where he is the joint-leading scorer with 12 goals – into both Cup competitions and head coach Naoki Naruo tipped him to win the Golden Boot.

“I have been talking with him and his team-mates are helping him to score,” he said. “I think he has the potential to be top scorer.”

Eight of his 17 goals – almost half – have come from headers, which is remarkable for a player with a unremarkable height of 1.77m.

That was how he broke the deadlock on 32 minutes, making a smart run to glance in Masaya Jitozono’s perfect free-kick delivery from 45 yards past a static Joey Sim.

Kawata’s second strike, on 67 minutes, was perhaps his best of the lot though. From 30 yards, he sent a knuckle-ball effort swerving into the top right corner as Sim looked on helplessly.

The third was a header again, as he made yet another smart, late run from his marker’s blind side to direct Jitozono’s cross in from eight yards.

Tampines boss Akbar Nawas, gracious in defeat, admitted that the heavy defeat “had been coming”.

“You can say it was slightly harsh, but the way they started attacking us in the second half, it was coming,” he said. “We didn’t do well enough to stop the goals coming from the centre, but take nothing from what they played and how they got the goals.

He did rue Billy Mehmet’s miss on 56 minutes with the score still at 1-0, the Englishman blasting right at goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa from point-blank range after Jordan Webb played him in with a lovely chip.

Despite seeing the Cup campaign come to an end, Akbar was still pleased with the way his fringe players stepped up in the absence of seven Singapore internationals who were called up for duty.

The likes of Prime League youngsters Saifullah Akbar, Ariyan Malik and Gautam Selvamany impressed, while others like Haiqal Sulaiman, Shafie Muliantoh and Faridzuan Fuad also made their debuts.

“It is good experience for the young players to play in a semi-final against the S.League leaders and pleasing to watch them come up,” Akbar said. “It’s good for the future and they held their own.”

The 41-year-old also did not hesitate to tip the White Swans to defend their League Cup crown against Brunei DPMM – who beat Home United in the other semi-final – on Saturday night.

“Their work ethic is fantastic, they defend and attack as a team and work very hard in transition,” he explained.

Naruo will have to do so without the services of Jitozono, who ran the show from midfield with his wand of a left foot. The 26-year-old produced three glorious assists, the last of which was an inch-perfect lob to set up substitute Tatsuro Inui to volley in the fourth on 87 minutes.

But he agreed with Akbar’s suggestion and remained confident of winning the club’s fourth League Cup trophy.

“Masaya will be a very big miss, but we still have good players who can replace him,” he said. “Our team is in very good condition, so I think we have it in us to win.”

Photo: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo