ALBIREX NIIGATA 2
(Atsushi Shirota 49, Tatsuro Inui 87)
HOUGANG UNITED 0
Photo credit: Leo Shengwei
It was a homecoming of sorts as Albirex Niigata returned to a new synthetic turf at the Jurong East Stadium for their first home game of the season.
And boy, did the White Swans prove that they are the real deal both off and on the pitch with a comprehensive 2-0 victory over pretenders Hougang United who fell off the S.League summit into second place.
Into their 13th season, Albirex have now established themselves as a model of professionalism and it is easy to see why. It is hopefully also not that difficult for the local S.League teams to follow suit.
In 2013, Albirex pledged to donate $1 to Yuhua CSC for every fan that attended their home games at Jurong East Stadium as part of a memorandum of understanding to connect with their community.
From last season's games, they contributed a record $19,499, taking their four-year total to $56,280.
Such commitment is also evident when fans first set foot into their stadium.
Life-size cut-outs of every Albirex player line the corridor to allow fans to recognise and identify their heroes.
Pre-match, cute toddler cheerleaders trot out to cheers of the crowd before the big kick-off.
Okay, so the match was nothing to shout about. It happens.
But after a three-game winless run that saw them clock a goal drought of up to 334 minutes, Naoki Naruo's side definitely had something to prove.
This year's Albirex team have added a more direct dimension to their customary passing approach. By mixing it up, opponents find it more difficult to defend against them.
And so it proved in the 49th minute, when Atsushi Shirota finally broke the deadlock by heading in Kento Nagasaki's cross.
Hougang were clearly frustrated and it showed via four yellow cards to Fairoz Hasan, Yusiskandar Yusop, Faiz Salleh and Jozef Kaplan in quick succession.
Kaplan then missed a gilt-edged chance shortly after the hour mark when he headed wide from an excellent Nazrul Nazari cross.
Tatsuro Inui then sealed the three points when he took full advantage of Wahyudi Wahid's dalliance on the ball to curl his team's second into the bottom corner three minutes from time.
In a brilliant show of fan interaction, Albirex then celebrated with a unique dance routine that involved the crowd singing and clapping along with the players as they shimmied from left to right to salute their home faithful.
There was even time for a short Q&A with a home player, this time being Shirota, who thanked the fans for their support and said: "We know that Hougang are a tough team but we analysed them and were able to execute our game plan and beat them."
Visiting coach K Balagumaran had a point when he highlighted that the condition of the pitch must be improved.
He added: "I'm disappointed because there was so much rubber on the pitch. I had to change tactics to play a long ball game, and that is not the way I wanted my team to play.
"But if we continued with a build-up approach, we might have been punished by a bigger margin."
Naturally, Naruo was more forgiving of his new turf as they got off to the good start they needed. Last season, a big reason they were unable to win their first S.League title was because they failed to score in eight out of 12 home matches at Jurong East.
He said: "Maybe in the future, we can water it more so that we can play a faster passing game.
"But tonight, we scored two goals, kept a clean sheet and won three points, so I'm happy.
"Scoring goals is the most important part of the game and we have to improve on creating chances and putting them away.
"If we can continue improving on these, we have a good chance to win the league."
If not, they would still have won over many fans.
ALBIREX NIIGATA: Yosuke Nozawa, Mikiya Yamada, Atsushi Shirota, Kento Fujihara, Naofumi Tanaka, Atsushi Kawata, Kento Nagasaki, Shuto Inaba, Hiroyoshi Kamata (Tatsuro Inui 71), Daichi Ishiyama (Tomoki Menda 83), Rui Kamada (Kazuki Mine 64)
HOUGANG UNITED: Khairulhin Khalid, Nazrul Nazari, Yusiskandar Yusop (Nur Na'iim Ishak 79), Wahyudi Wahid, Faiz Salleh (Huzaifah Aziz 87), M Anumanthan, Nurhilmi Jasni, Fairoz Hasan (Iqbal Hussain 61), Jozef Kaplan, Stipe Plazibat, Fumiya Kogure