League Cup: Silk and steel win it for Tigers

SINGAPORE - There was nary a helmet in sight last Monday night at the Jurong East Stadium.

Perhaps Albirex Niigata didn't even need them for their StarHub League Cup semi-final against Balestier Khalsa.

Sure, they were given all sorts of problems by Balestier's 1.88m-tall defender Paul Cunningham, deployed as a battering ram up front.

But, for all the Japanese side's worries about their opponents' physicality, it was a moment of sublime skill that undid them.

There looked to be little danger when the ball rolled towards Balestier's Park Kang Jin at the edge of the penalty box in the 12th minute.

But the South Korean midfielder spun his marker with a superb first touch, before sending a cool finish low into the far corner with his weaker left foot.

The brilliant strike - which won Balestier the game - contradicted Tigers' coach Darren Stewart's pre-match claim that Albirex would "need helmets" to deal with their direct style of football.

The Aussie hailed his players for their effort, which saw them reach the final of a major cup competition for the first time since the S-League was formed in 1996.

He said: "Big Paul's playing with a torn quadriceps muscle that's not at 100 per cent, but he's running around like there's nothing wrong with him.

"They (Albirex) caused us some trouble, but the way we played tonight, I don't think we would have lost to anyone.

"The boys feel fantastic they've made the final, but it's not for themselves, it's for the boss (club chairman S Thavaneson) because he's looked after us like you can't believe."

Balestier started the game brightly and forced Albirex into some panicky moments at the back early on.

Just like Stewart promised, there was no shortage of heavy challenges and normally ice-cool Albirex coach Koichi Sugiyama berated the fourth official after his player Takeshi Nagasawa was caught by a very late tackle by Cunningham as early as the seventh minute.

After Park scored, the Japanese side pushed forward for the equaliser but found the Balestier goal a difficult target to hit.

Fired wide

Kento Nagasaki and Kazuki Sakamoto had good chances to score in the second half, but fired wide.

And when Albirex did get the ball on target - as defender Kento Fukuda did with his header in stoppage-time - a combination of Tigers' left back Syed Thaha and goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam was on the spot to keep it out.

The defeat not only dumped Albirex out of the competition they won in 2011, but also underscored their scoring problems.

The White Swans have now failed to find the net in seven of their last 11 matches, and Sugiyama knows it is just not good enough for a team hopeful of silverware.

He did not attend the post-match press conference because he was still addressing the team some 45 minutes after the final whistle.

Albirex general manager Koh Mui Tee said: "We played according to our gameplan, but it's just unfortunate that Balestier got the goal and we didn't."

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