Having surrendered their 100 per cent unbeaten record to Woodlands Wellington only seven days earlier, Albirex Niigata certainly made sure they gave themselves every chance to avoid repeating that failure with a cautious approach against Tanjong Pagar United on Tuesday night.
Albirex coach Koichi Sugiyama was a lot happier after this game than he had been after the Woodlands one.
“I’m satisfied with my team’s performance this evening,” he declared, pointing to the relative strength of his opponents.
“I think that today was our best game of the season [because] we were able to control the game against a very strong opponent in Tanjong Pagar.
“We have to continue [in this vein]; in the last game we did not play so well and my players were much better this evening.
“I was also pleased that I was able to give my tall defender, Yuki Ichikawa, five minutes as a substitute near the end of the game.
“It was always my plan to bring him on, but at most for 10 or 15 minutes. He showed me in his time on the field that he is very valuable to the team and I am keen to use him against Tampines [Rovers], when we play them, as they have a lot of tall strikers.”
That will be the next home game for the White Swans, who face Geylang United away next on April 12
This game opened up considerably in the second-half and Albirex could possibly have sewn the game up in the latter stages had their finishing been a little sharper.
Tanjong Pagar, who had relied almost exclusively on getting balls up to their three strikers in the first-half, became more adventurous after the break with Ahmad Latiff and Hafiz Nor given more liberty to go forward. Those two certainly posed some threat, making the Albirex defenders work hard to clear their lines after both sides had already found the net.
Patrick Vallee, Tanjong Pagar’s French-born coach, did not want to see his team having to fight back from a goal down twice, as they needed to do at their previous outing against Hougang United, which they ultimately won 3-2.
“Of course I am happy - happy for the two teams [as] we both want to play football and the result was alright,” he remarked.
“Albirex like to keep the ball but I always felt we could win, even if it was always going to be a difficult game for us. Albirex know only one way to play [possession football], but I felt we created better chances than they did.
“We could have won it - Zerka had a chance, but he was looking tired near the end and that’s why he didn’t score, I think.”
Zerka had latched onto a pass from the left and had only goalkeeper Hiroaki Hara to beat, but after Hara had blocked the initial shot in the 87th minute, the Moroccan was not sharp enough to rifle home the rebound as he sent the ball just wide with a reflex action.
There was also late drama from Albirex substitute, Ichikawa, in the final moments of the game, his close-range header off a well-struck free-kick really testing Herisson, who had to tip the ball over the bar.
Vallee declined to state his points-target over the next five matches, having said that he had aimed at 10 for the first five games and was quite happy to have got them.
“I am only going to tell you that later,” he said with a wink.