Albirex 2 Hougang 3 | Cheetahs’ pace edges them past White Swans

Posted on February 8, 2011

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This game between Albirex Niigata and Hougang United might have been seen as just another pre-season friendly. Only it wasn’t. It was a matchup between two teams with arguably the best attacks in warmup matches for the 2011 S.League season. Albirex have impressed with their incisive play, hitting bucketloads of goals against the NFA U18 side (5), Gombak (4) and Balestier (5). Hougang have also been prolific, netting against Woodlands (3), Kuala Lumpur (3), Pahang (4) and beating the likes of SAFFC, Selangor (both 2-1) and Geylang (2-0) in their friendlies.

With five goals by the time the 90 minutes were up, this game did not disappoint. Hougang raced to a 2-0 lead within 25 minutes, but Albirex struck back with two goals in two minutes before the break. Hougang’s electric Canadian winger Jordan Webb turned out to be the difference in the end, his strike on the hour mark ensuring the Cheetahs would leave Jalan Besar with a morale-boosting win under their belts.

The Starting XIs

Albirex started with an identical formation to the one that smashed Balestier 5-0 last week. Keisuke Matsui sat in front of the back four in a midfield anchorman role, while the same advanced midfield four – Bruno Castanheira, Musashi Okuyama, Shimpei Sakurada and Tatsuro Inui – were strung across the pitch. Bruno would act as an auxilliary forward, coming inside to support lone striker Shotaro Ihata.

Hougang, meanwhile, loosely set themselves up in a 4-4-2. The fleet-footed duo of Jordan and Fazli Jaffar took up positions on the right and left flanks respectively, while Azhar Sairudin and star man Carlos Alberto Delgado patrolled centre midfield. Diego Gama led the line, partnering Mamadou Diallo, who would drop back into midfield and out to the left flank to work in tandem with Fazli.

Cheetahs prove quick enough for Albirex

As part of their rebranding this season, Hougang’s mascot has been changed to the Cheetah – the fastest land animal over a short distance. And how apt a choice it is. In Jordan, Fazli and Diallo, Hougang have quick players who are able to put their opponents under pressure and exploit spaces and gaps behind the defence.

This was a key reason why they managed to match Albirex; and why Balestier capitulated so poorly. Balestier played a narrow midfield four with one defensive midfielder and three slightly advanced midfielders. This meant the Albirex fullbacks had plenty of space in front of them to bomb forward and help the wingers (Bruno and Inui) who did not have to worry about tracking back in wide areas, and could focus on attacking the Balestier fullbacks.

Hougang’s formation, meanwhile, saw Jordan and Fazli pin the Albirex fullbacks back and, in the cases where Diallo moved into the left channel, Bruno was forced to track back and help his rightback, who was double-teamed.

Also, in general, Balestier’s lineup last week lacked players with genuine pace. Poh Yi Feng only came on in the second half, while K Vikraman was injured.

Diallo’s movement vital to Hougang

Although he was not directly involved in any of Hougang’s three goals, Diallo had a big impact in how the game panned out. When he droppped into midfield, Matsui instinctively moved to track him, probably because Albirex didn’t want a centre-back drawn out of position. Because Matsui followed Diallo all over, Okuyama and Sakurada took turns to drop back to help cover the space in front of the Albirex back four.

This effectively took one central attacking player out of Albirex’s arsenal for periods of the game, and their formation in essence changed from a 4-1-4-1 to 4-2-3-1. In fact, Sakurada’s mistake in a defensive position led to the penalty for Hougang’s opening goal. Hougang’s second goal was a well-worked move between Delgado, Jordan and Diallo, with the latter finishing. And in the second half, Jordan dispossessed an Albirex defender to finish a 1 v 1 for the winner. Despite a goal and an assist to his name, Jordan didn’t really perform well. It just goes to show how having pace can mean you can still have an impact despite being woeful over an entire game.

A worry for Hougang: The Defence

Despite their pace and penetration upfront, Hougang coach Aide Iskandar should be worried about his team’s defence. New signing Fumiya Kobayashi partnered midfielder Syaqir Sulaiman in the heart of defence today, and while it remains to be seen if Syaqir’s deployment is only temporary, the two goals conceded in two minutes were a concern.

First, Okuyama rose high in the centre of the six yard box to head easily past Fadhil Salim, and a minute later, Ihara swept home a rebound unmarked in the box, after Fadhil had parried Inui’s shot. Fadhil still had to pull off very good saves from Bruno’s header and from Kawakami at point-blank range in the last 15 minutes, for Hougang to hold on to the win. It could very easily have been 4-3 to the White Swans, and if former national defender Aide has some work on his hands to solidify his backline if the Cheetahs want to make a real impression on the league table this year.

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