News Singapore Premier League • May 25, 2018

Singapore Premier League Preview: Balestier determined to stop Albirex’s perfect ten


Ryujiro Yamanaka has stepped up to the plate for Albirex Niigata FC (S).

SINGAPORE, 25 MAY 2018Reigning Great Eastern-Hyundai Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions Albirex Niigata FC (S) could make it a perfect ten when they host high-flying Balestier Khalsa FC at Jurong East Stadium on Sunday night, 27 May. The match will kick off at 8.30pm.

BACKGROUND As some have said: just hand Albirex the trophy already. The White Swans’ class of 2018 have carried on where their predecessors left off last season, with an astonishing start to their title defence with nine wins in as many games.

Despite retaining just two players and almost half of the squad comprising Under-21 players, Kazuaki Yoshinaga’s new-look side have adapted to life at this level swimmingly and left the rest trailing in their wake.

A massive 14 points ahead of Sunday night’s opponents Balestier, they could well extend the gap to 17 should they win and other results go their way this weekend.

Nonetheless, midfielder Daiki Asaoka believes his side need to keep their feet on the ground, citing the example of conceding three equalisers to Tampines Rovers FC in their last match before his 35-yard screamer sealed a late win.

“Honestly we were so happy to get the three points.” the 23-year-old said. “I’ve been practicing (long shots) after training so to score was indeed satisfying for me.

“But we did not put in the best performance as a team in that game and we need to further improve to become the best.

“Coach always reminds us that we have to be humble. So we have been training hard without thinking too much about other things and staying focused in our training sessions.”

The White Swans are looking to extend their incredible winning streak at Jurong East to 31 matches – a run that started in November 2015 – but it will be a slightly tricky task against a much-improved Balestier side.

Marko Kraljevic’s men have collected 13 points from nine matches and are just one win away from matching their 2017 tally of five.

Midfield anchorman Raihan Rahman’s season-ending anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury was a dampening one, but the rest of the team have gone about their jobs with minimal fuss – culminating in a superb 2-1 comeback win against Home United FC at the National Stadium last Saturday.

A Vedran Mesec long-range strike in the 87th minute and Huzaifah Aziz’s stunning solo goal in injury time rescued victory from the jaws of defeat after they conceded early on nine minutes.

Defender Fadli Kamis lauded the strong team spirit that has brought the Tigers up to the giddy heights of second and backed them to remain there.

“I’ve always believed that my team could pull off the victory (against Home) although we were down by a goal for most of the game,” said the 25-year-old.

“We have a brotherhood-like atmosphere in this team so we go into each game with high confidence and a winning mentality. We just have to maintain this and be consistent in every game. If we can do it, I believe we’re capable of a top-three finish.”

The odds are stacked against Balestier though, having lost the last nine head-to-head encounters against Albirex. Their last victory at Jurong East came in July 2015, when they prevailed 1-0 through Fadhil Noh’s long-range stunner.

TEAM NEWS Albirex will continue to miss out on centre-back Shun Kumagai as he continues to recover from a meniscus tear, while Singaporean playmaker Adam Swandi is out with a knee problem.

Meanwhile, Balestier face a defensive crisis with Sharin Majid and Shaqi Sulaiman out injured, while Nurullah Hussein will serve a one-match suspension for his dismissal against Home.

Fortunately, Sheikh Abdul Hadi has returned to training after recovering from an Achilles injury and may well start alongside Sufianto Salleh at the heart of their defence.

New Zealander forward Keegan Linderboom should also return to the starting eleven after coming on for the final 20 minutes against Home.

Albirex: WWWWW
Balestier: DWLLW

Balestier 0-1 Albirex – Singapore Premier League
Balestier 0-3 Albirex – Singapore Premier League
Albirex 2-1 Balestier – Singapore Premier League
Balestier 0-3 Albirex – Singapore Premier League
Balestier 0-1 Albirex – Singapore Cup

Ryujiro Yamanaka – Albirex
It is testament to Albirex’s strength in depth that a fringe player can step in and do a sterling job in the absence of a first-teamer. Yamanaka, 22, came to the fore with two goals and an assist in the White Swans’ 4-3 win over Tampines and may well retain his starting spot.

Vedran Mesec – Balestier
Mesec has been quietly producing the goods for the Tigers, showing his versatility by slotting in the middle of the park as well as playing off the front man. The 30-year-old also packs a good shot from distance and he will be relishing the opportunity to grab a third goal of the season in this game.

Albirex midfielder Asaoka
: “I have a good relationship with Wataru Murofushi in midfield and we understand each other’s roles. I help out in the defensive part so that he can support the attack. I model my game after Manchester City’s Fernandinho because he plays a similar role to mine and my goal as a footballer is just to become a better player than yesterday. Balestier’s a tough team to play against, so we’ll try not to let them execute what they’ve been practicing in their training.”

Balestier defender Fadli: “It was unlucky for us to lose 1-0 to them (Albirex) earlier in the season and luck wasn’t really on our side that day. We have a few defenders missing for this game but we just have to focus and stick to Coach Marko’s instructions to get a result.”

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