|By Kenneth Tan
Things were not looking particularly rosy for Koichi Sugiyama's Albirex Niigata (Singapore) side. The team had fired blanks in the past two friendly matches - first a goalless draw against Woodlands Wellington, followed by a 1-0 defeat to Tanjong Pagar United.
In Tuesday evening’s tune-up against Hougang United, they fell behind after barely 15 minutes when new captain Shohei Hotta - of all people - lost the ball near his own penalty area, resulting in the opening goal.
But the outcome was to be different this time, as the White Swans hit five of their own thereafter to achieve a pleasant-looking 5-1 victory.
And judging from proceedings, the White Swans will have their own 'Terrific Trio' this season.
New forward Kazuki Sayamoto took home the match ball with three clinically-taken strikes, playmaker Kento Nagasaki, who provided the link between midfield and attack, chipped in with one and the returning Bruno Castenheira, who was a constant menace down the flanks, contributed to an own goal.
The three players were the outstanding performers in a side with 18 new players – the result of a traditional Albirex policy of nurturing young Japanese players.
Sugiyama was certainly left satisfied after seeing the new boys replicate his attractive brand of attacking football in the 90 minutes.
“We change many players every year – this is our concept,” he explained. “The players are different but the philosophy stays the same because I stayed. I’m happy to see the [new] players controlling the game and playing my style of football.
"Kuzuki and Kento are good players which I picked from the Japanese university teams, while Bruno didn’t work out at Albirex [senior team] last year so I decided to bring him back [because] we need such a player.”
Apart from the influx of new players, something unusual about Albirex this year is the conversion of two existing backroom staff into squad members.
Goalkeeping coach Hiroaki Hara and assistant coach Takeshi Nagasawa are registered in their 24-man squad and have already passed the mandatory 2.4km fitness test at the first time of asking.
The duo will join Hotta, Yuki Ichikawa and Masatake Sato in nurturing the latest batch of White Swans.
“Hara’s 35 years old this year, he’s experienced and will be our first choice goalkeeper this year,” Sugiyama assessed.
"Nagasawa’s only turning 23 and plays in midfield. He’s been under me as a coach for three years and I think he’s a good player. When I discover a good player, I always try to turn them into a professional.”
Despite the squad having an average age of just 22, the 2011 MIKASA Coach of the Year is confident the new boys will put on a good show in the new season.
“You can play football no matter [whether] you’re 20 or 30 years old. For me, there’s no problem when you’re out there on the pitch,” Sugiyama concluded.Albirex Niigata will host Balestier Khalsa in their final friendly match scheduled on February 14, before kicking off their 2013 S.League campaign against Harimau Muda B on February 22.