The Balestier Khalsa team manager rued his side's lack of luck as they went down to Albirex Niigata despite playing well, while Koichi Sugiyama hailed his team's patienceThe better team does not always win and after the most even of contests, Tuesday night’s game at the Toa Payoh Stadium came down to one well-taken chance against a number of others that were thwarted - either by the frame of the goal, or by some goalkeeping brilliance.
Albirex Niigata edged the game 1-0 against Balestier Khalsa, and the Japanese team’s coach, Koichi Sugiyama, was the first to admit that it had not been easy.
“I am happy as it was a very difficult game for us, as it always is against Balestier,” he said.
“We know they will never give up, but neither will we. We had patience and our own players worked very hard and did a very good job.
“We changed our plan, partly because of the pitch and partly because we know how Balestier play and so we changed our approach today. Only in the last 15 minutes, when Balestier opened up more, did we begin to play ‘our football’ like we usually do.”
Sugiyama stressed his belief in his side and revealed they worked “very hard” for two days in training on their defending at set-pieces after conceding twice from set-plays against Tampines Rovers in their previous game, a 2-1 loss.
He also reserved praise for match-winner Shingo Suzuki, who popped up with the crucial goal 10 minutes from time.
“I knew Shingo from his time in Japan, as we played there together and I know him to be a real professional,” Sugiyama remarked.
“This was his first goal for us, tonight. He spent a lot of time, after training, practicing shooting on his own and it paid off.
“I am sure he can score more goals for us now.”
For Balestier, the loss was a bitter pill to swallow after losing their previous match by the same score, having seemingly had the better of the play both times.
Team manager and assistant coach Kevin Wee spoke to the media on behalf of the coaching staff, headed by Australian Darren Stewart.
“We had a game plan and the boys carried it out magnificently,” he said.
“Unfortunately luck was not with us; even though I am convinced the better team did not win tonight.
“Our plan was to press them high up the park, but everyone played well [and] only their keeper [Hiroaki Hara] saved them with some big saves and we also hit the woodwork.
“We will keep working and eventually the work will pay off for us, I’m sure. The team played well again, without getting anything from the game.”
Late in the game, Balestier pulled off central defender and captain Jaslee Hatta, and threw on tough-tackling midfielder Ridwan Jamil. Ruhaizad Ismail also made way for Patrick Paran over the final 25 minutes. Tengku Mushadad dropped back to cover for both Obadin Aikhena and Jaslee, as the Tigers made a last-ditch stand.
“We pushed Gabriel [Obadin Aikhena] up front, so the replacement of Jaslee was purely tactical,” Wee explained.
“There was still seven minutes left to play [including stoppages], so we had to give it a shot.”
But for Balestier the bird had already flown, while the White Swans got their first win in a while, thus keeping their title hopes alive.
“We are always thinking about the title, we still believe we can do it,” Sugiyama enthused.
“But we have to wait another 10 days to play again, which is a pity [as it will disrupt our momentum].”