The Unofficial Hougang United FC Supporters Blog

Sunday, July 31, 2011

League Cup: Triumphant Albirex celebrate rite of passage

Tam Cheong Yan

Albirex Niigata (Singapore) were crowned champions of the League Cup 2011 tournament after beating Hougang United in the grand final at Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday evening.

Yoshito Matsushita’s save to deny Jordan Webb in the final regulation attempt of the penalty shootout was enough to clinch the Japanese side victory by a 5-4 margin, after 120 minutes of football had left both sides exactly where they had started.

Despite the lack of goals, Albirex impressed on the occasion with a team display that was markedly different from what they had often shown this season, reflecting a newfound maturity against a firmly aggressive Hougang outfit.

And while most of the attention fell on the White Swans’ long wait for a first trophy in Singapore, the coming of age of this eighth cohort of Albirex players was itself as significant a milestone – if perhaps less noticed.

Koichi Sugiyama stuck with essentially the same set of players who had featured throughout the last six months, as Keisuke Matsui, Yosuke Saito and Musashi Okuyama were the trio from the regular 14 to start from the bench.

The other eleven, including goalkeeper Matsushita, lined up against a Hougang side that included Ratna Suffian and Fathi Yunus, as Shahril Alias moved wide to cover for rightback Faizal Amir’s absence through suspension.

The match started the way it usually does when Hougang are involved, the Cheetahs keeping close to their opponents at all quarters in a bid to give minimal movement room.

Carlos Delgado took this a little too far when he was called for two fouls in the space of the opening six minutes, although he came close to having more positive moments when he missed a fleeting chance to fire the first shot in the Albirex box.

The Argentine then had another glorious opportunity twelve minutes in following a move involving Vitor Borges and Webb, as the tension began to rapidly mount amid loud cheering from supporters of both sides.

Hougang were hardly the only team doing the attacking, though, as Tatsuro Inui had an early free kick curled straight into Fadhil Salim and Shotaro Ihata headed a cross wide at the near post.

Still, most of the early chances were going to Hougang, including a long-range shot from Delgado on 18 minutes that a fully-stretched Matsushita was relieved to see rebound off the post.

But with Webb busy on the flanks and Borges offering little other than his powerful frame to hold up the ball for others, the Cheetahs were feeling the absence of Mamadou Diallo, who has been out injured throughout the tournament.

Remarkably, Albirex looked relatively quiet and composed throughout this time, as the lack of space and opportunities did not seem to disturb them all that much.

At time they appeared quite happy to stroke the ball around between midfield and defence, a marked departure from their swashbuckling style that had seem them overrun many an opponent in both the league and the RHB Singapore Cup.

Perhaps it was the exertion that came from playing their third match in seven days, the previous two turning out to be two-hour affairs against Geylang United and Tampines Rovers.

Whatever the cause was, the White Swans looked wiser, more patient, almost Zen-like in their approach to the game as they descended upon Hougang in somewhat more controlled fashion.

That did not mean they did not have chances, and centreback Norihiro Kawakami, who had scored off a corner against Tampines, almost did it again off a free kick just past the half-hour mark.

Hougang responded swiftly with a free kick of their own at the other end, but Webb, having beaten the offside flag in racing to meet a Delgado delivery, ended up blasting his shot horrendously high from all of six yards out.

Webb was then guilty of missing out on a decisive touch three minutes before half-time, after Delgado’s initial shot had taken a deflection away from goal off an Albirex defender.

For the most part, though, the 2,259 fans present seemed satisfied by what they saw as an entertaining game between the two sides, even if chances were relatively few up to that point.

The second half did not take long to produce its first chance, Matsushita smothering a stray pass at the start of the second minute before a Hougang man could break free of his marker.

Rightback Ryuta Hayashi then found himself in the unusual situation of having a chance to shoot on the edge of the area, following a move that had lined up as many as five Albirex players for a shot on goal.

Hayashi fired meekly, making life relatively easy for Fadhil, who had little to do on the night other than to make many routine catches and saves, many of them off corners and free kicks.

That Albirex had few chances from open play was a credit to some disciplined team defending from the Cheetahs rearguard, with Ratna often coming to the fore.

The White Swans were similarly tight at the back, and while Kawakami was most visible for his big clearances, special mention had to be given to the excellent work done by anchorman Shuhei Hotta, who together with Kawakami kept a tight watch on Borges in the centre.

All that added up to a match where few clear-cut chances emerged, and as the minutes passed by, it became increasingly clear there would be no winner inside 90 minutes.

It was a situation Hougang did not seem to mind, even though Webb again had a fleeting glimpse at a great chance when Takuya Hidaka prevented him from pulling the trigger on 75 minutes.

Unusually, though, their opponents seemed equally happy to just play the minutes out, which was very different from how things had been in the two sides’ first league encounter this season.

Admittedly Hougang were not quite the roughhouse side they were back in April, but they remained willing to dish out some heavy tackles, particularly late in regulation time.

But the Japanese were not frustrated at all this time – not even the previously-combustible Saito, who was taken down heavily by Webb on 86 minutes but then simply picked himself up and walked away.

The Hougang fans were equally unsuccessful in their attempts to rile the opposition with their frequently-repeated allegations of ‘always cheating’ and ‘diver’, as the men in orange and blue seemed dead set on getting on with their job while blocking all distractions out of their heads.

The flow and purpose in their football never ceased, even if the pace of their game did not pick up until extra time, when captain Shimpei Sakurada blasted a shot high at the end of a good move down the left with 99 minutes on the clock.

Hougang too tried to get something out of it, and Delgado looked utterly surprised when he fired a very poor effort from just inside the penalty area on 103 minutes.

Webb then looked on in sheer disbelief in the final minute of extra time when, at the end of a one-two with
Borges, he fired an angled shot beyond Matsushita – but also beyond the far post.

By that time Hougang were beginning to fade, and the experience of reaching the final through a penalty shootout seemed to benefit Albirex as they held their nerve comfortably with the first four shots, all of them to the right with Fadhil headed the wrong way each time.

The Cheetahs too netted on the first four attempts, but when Ihata sent his shot to the left and just beneath the diving Fadhil, it all came down to Webb’s attempt, which too was directed to the left.

Matsushita guessed correctly and saved the low shot, and as everyone at the club erupted in joy, there was a sense of that familiar raw innocence and excitement for the first time on the day.

On the evidence of the football played, however, it was clear that this group of Albirex players, in going so far and lifting the League Cup trophy, has indeed shown signs of new maturity. - (SOURCE)

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