(TAM: Jamil Ali 84’ ALB: Itsuki Yamada 16’; Kazuki Sakamoto 36’; Bruno Castanheira 61’)
Albirex Niigata (S) produced a masterful display for the second week running to claim a 3-1 win over Great Eastern-YEO’s S.League champions Tampines Rovers on Friday.
Reporting from the Jalan Besar Stadium
In an enthralling clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium, the White Swans drew first blood when Itsuki Yamada scored a classy effort in the 16th minute, before Kazuki Sakamoto doubled their tally nine minutes before the break.
The contest was then all but ended when Bruno Castanheira added a third for the designated visitors in the 61st minute, although Tampines did manage a consolation six minutes from time through a clinical finish from substitute Jamil Ali.
Just last Wednesday, Albirex had produced arguably their best display of the season to beat Woodlands Wellington 3-1 at the Jurong East Stadium, even though it had little consequence in the grander scheme of things as Tampines had long sewn up the league title.
But with second place still up for grabs, it was imperative that the Japanese outfit maintained their chase of Home United by getting a positive result against the Stags, and they certainly started the brighter of the two sides.
12 minutes in, Sakamoto issued the first warning when he pounced on an awful back-pass by Firdaus Kasman and drilled a shot just wide of the near post, before their opponents responded a minute later; Khairul Amri trying his luck from the edge of the box with a looping effort that Hiroaki Hara pushed onto the woodwork.
But in the 16th minute, it was Albirex who broke the deadlock when a lovely shuffle of the feet by Sakamoto saw him create enough space for himself to lay the ball off to Yamada, who exquisitely dragged the ball past an opponent before firing his shot in off the post.
Five minutes later, the roles were almost reversed when the goal-scorer found spacedown the left and floated a brilliant cross into the box, only to see Sakamoto’s bullet header kept out by Andre Martins from point-blank range.
Despite missing a number of first-team players, including captain Fahrudin Mustafic, Seiji Kaneko and Ruzaini Zainal, the Stags were also looking good and Amri came close again in the two minutes before the half-hour mark, twisting and turning on the edge of the box to create a half-opening before unleashing a blistering shot that forced Hara into a flying save.
Ismadi Mukhtar was next to threaten the Albirex goal in the 33rd minute when he skipped past a challenge and advanced on goal before curling a shot past Hara, but it was inches wide of the bottom corner.
And three minutes later, the White Swans made their opponents pay when they continued their clinical ways in front of goal and grabbed a second; Bruno brilliantly controlling Sakamoto’s volleyed pass before playing a delightful return ball to his team-mate, who calmly floated his shot over the onrushing Martins.
Despite now holding a commanding lead, Albirex continued to play without any reservations after the break, which greatly contributed to the spectacle.
They were unlucky not to add a third in the 57th minute when Masatake Sato lined up a 30-yard freekick and fired in a lovely curling effort, only to see it smash into the post.
Nonetheless, there was no denying them a minute after the hour mark when Bruno grabbed a deserving goal; emphatically volleying home on the rebound after Martins could only parry a shot into his path.
While Tampines were showing plenty of spirit, it was just one of those days where nothing seemed to go right for them at the back, and had it not been for Martins, the scoreline perhaps would have been much worse.
The Portuguese keeper did well in the 63rd minute to tip a ferocious shot by Sakamoto onto the bar, after Bruno had lobbed the ball over the static Stags defence to find the striker, before repeating the feat 11 minutes later to claw away an attempted lob from the same man after he had been played in by Sato’s visionary 40-yard pass.
Sakamoto had another excellent chance 13 minutes from time when he was picked out unmarked inside the area by Kento Nagasaki’s right-wing cross, but this time Martins had an easier save to make as his opponent’s header sailed straight at him.
Still, to Tampines’ credit, they showed plenty of determination right down to the closing stages of the game and grabbed a goal to show for their efforts in the 84th minute; Aleksandar Duric holding up the ball well inside the area before playing it right to Jamil, who fired one past Hara at his near post.
The night did however belong to Albirex and they will now travel to the Bishan Stadium on Monday evening to take on Home United in a final-round duel for the runners-up spot.
Tampines Rovers: Andre Martins, Anaz Hadee, Jufri Taha, Kunihiro Yamashita, Shaiful Esah, Ismadi Mukhtar (Imran Sahib 69’), Firdaus Kasman, Shahdan Sulaiman, Vitor Ladeiras (Jamil Ali 60’), Khairul Amri, Diogo Caramelo (Aleksandar Duric 46’).
Albirex Niigata (S): Hiroaki Hara, Yuki Ichikawa, Kento Fukuda, Masahiro Ishikawa, Itsuki Yamada, Shuhei Hotta (Shingo Suzuki 90’), Masatake Sato, Kento Nagasaki, Bruno Castanheira, Kazuya Fukuzaki (Takeshi Nagasawa 53’), Kazuki Sakamoto (Yoshinaga Arima 88’).