HOUGANG UNITED 1
(Jozef Kaplan 39)
ALBIREX NIIGATA 2
(Atsushi Kawata 57, Tatsuro Inui 63)
Even as all eyes are on Atsushi Kawata for leading the S.League topscorers’ list with 11 goals, the Albirex Niigata attacker is not even the player with the best strike rate in his team.
That honour belongs to winger Tatsuro Inui, who is fast developing into the White Swans’ talisman.
Last night at the Hougang Stadium, he made the opener and scored the winner to smash Hougang United’s six-match unbeaten home record this season.
The way the Japanese team won without being at their best suggested they have enough individual matchwinners like Kawata and Inui to drag them over the finishing line and win their first S.League title come October.
Going into this match, Hougang United were on a six-match winless streak in all competitions and had always made life difficult for themselves during this stretch by conceding the first goal.
But last night, they grabbed the opener in the 39th minute when captain Jozef Kaplan rose highest to head home Fumiya Kogure’s free kick, raising hopes of the home faithful that the long-awaited victory would be finally delivered.
Hougang goalkeeper Khairulhin Khalid also looked to be in impenetrable form with a smart stop to foil Hiroyoshi Kamata in the 17th minute.
But there was nothing he could do to deny Inui, who played a superb defence-splitting pass in the 57th minute for Kawata to slot in the equaliser, before firing a precise free kick beyond Khairulhin six minutes later for the win.
This would be the 26-year-old’s seventh league goal of the season in just 626 minutes of playing time, which equates to one goal every 89 minutes, compared to Kawata’s strike rate of one goal every 101 minutes.
Yet the most important, and impressive statistics for Albirex at that they have now extended their winning streak to nine games and more than halfway through the league season, they have 35 points from 14 games and enjoy a seven-point lead at the S.League summit ahead of nearest rivals Tampines Rovers.
Albirex coach Naruki Naruo said: “We knew it was going to be difficult and they made it difficult for us in the first half because they defended well and they also got the first goal.
“But in the second half, I told the players to be more relaxed and calm with the ball and I asked the central midfielders to move the ball wide so that we could get crosses in for our strikers and our second half performance was much better and we managed to score the important goals and get the three points.”
Hougang coach, K Balagumaran, on the other hand, was left scratching his head as to when and how his team will collect the full three points, even if they are still in the top half and fourth on 19 points.
He said: “It’s painful. We had a gameplan coming into the match and I think we did well in the first half. We defended well and scored the first goal and I thought we could sustain the lead.
“But we lost concentration in the second half and gave some cheap fouls away and they scored two quick goals from that. The good thing is that we did not give up and tried to get back but it didn’t work, so we just have to accept it and move on to the next game and try to win that one.”
HOUGANG UNITED: Khairulhin Khalid, Nazrul Nazari, Delwinder Singh, Wahyudi Wahid, Faiz Salleh, Nurhilmi Jasni (Iqbal Hussain 65), Raihan Rahman (Nur Ridho Jafri 78), M Anumanthan, Fumiya Kogure (Nur Na’iim Ishak 87), Jozef Kaplan, Stipe Plazibat
ALBIREX NIIGATA: Yosuke Nozawa, Mikiya Yamada, Atsushi Shirota, Kento Fujihara, Tomoki Menda, Shuto Inaba, Kento Nagasaki, Naofumi Tanaka, Tatsuro Inui (Daichi Ishiyama 69), Hiroyoshi Kamata (Kazuki Mine 84), Atsushi Kawata (Rui Kamada 90)