Why Albirex Niigata will not win the S.League in 2017

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Albirex Niigata FC (S) 2016 S.League champions
Albirex Niigata might have won the title last year, but things may not be the same when the S.League kicks off on 26 February.

Radical changes within the club

The White Swans have continued the trend of chopping and changing their squad in recent years with the retention of only eight players from the squad that swept an unprecedented treble in the 2016 season.

2016 S.League coach of the year Naoki Naruo has also departed the club after winning an unprecedented treble in his second stint at Albirex Niigata FC(S), he will be replaced by former Ventforet Kofu assistant coach, Kazuaki Yoshinaga, who has extensive experience in the J.League.

There have also been the departure of high profile players such as 2016 S.League player of the season Atsushi Kawata, who has since returned to Japan to play for parent club, Albirex Niigata in the J.League for the 2017 season and flamboyant winger Tatsuro Inui, who will be rendering his services to newly promoted club Thai Honda Ladkrabang FC in their maiden Thai Premier League campaign.

The rock solid defence partnership that only conceded 24 goals, the lowest in the S.League, has also been broken up, with Mikiya Yamada being released by the club, Atsushi Shirota joining Hougang United and Kento Fujihara plying his trade for Nagaworld FC in Cambodia.

lbirex Niigata FC (S) 2016 S.League (Photo credit: S.League)

The toughest challenge for the club has to be the task of assembling a squad with adequate quality capable of replicating the consistent sterling defensive work and potent attack that were the foundations of Albirex’s 2016 season.

Considering Kawata and Inui’s goals accounted for 24 out of the 50 goals scored by Albirex during the 2016 season. It remains to be seen if new signings such as Shoichiro Sakamoto and Ryuya Motoda, who were both plying their trade in the J2 League last season, will be able pick up the mantle and carry the heavy responsibility of scoring the goals to power the White Swans to success this season.

However, it is not all bad news for the White Swans, critically, they have retained the services of evergreen goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa. The calming influence of 38-year-old will be vital to ensuring the newly assembled squad settles in quickly.

Promising players such as midfield dynamo Shuto Inaba and indefatigable left back Naofumi Tanaka have also been renewed for a second season, while experienced midfield talisman Kento Nagasaki has also put pen to paper on what would be his fifth year in the S.League.

Resurgence of Local Clubs

Local teams have not wasted any time in making waves in the transfer market ahead of the 2017 S.League season. With each team harbouring intentions of being the first local side to win the league since Warriors FC in the 2014 season.

Tampines Rovers have made a statement of intent for the coming season by signing Khairul Amri, Sahil Suhaimi as well as one time Croatian U-17 captain Ivan Dzoni. The Stags have also appointed former Young Lions coach, Juergen Raab, to replace outgoing head coach Akbar Nawas ahead of the 2017 season.

Madhu Mohana and Daniel Bennett, coming off a good performance in the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup have also joined the Stags’ roster which already includes national team regulars, Izwan Mahbud and Shahdan Sulaiman.

Hougang United under the leadership of ambitious chairman Bill Ng certainly look to be going places. Money was spent on improving the club’s facilities and former Home United coach Phillipe Aw has been roped in to oversee the Cheetah’s 2017 campaign. 

Hougang United 2016 S.League – Iqbal (Photo credit: S.League)

Key players such as 2016 Young S.League Player of the year M. Anumanthan, Fumiya Kogure and Iqbal Hussian have been retained, while journeyman striker Pablo Rodriguez has been signed from Madura United, along with former Cheetah, Azhar Sairudin, back for his third stint at the club. Fareez Farhan has also been signed from Garena Young Lions to add extra firepower to the Hougang attack.

Home United have arguably pulled of the coup of the transfer market so far with the signing of national team first choice keeper Hassan Sunny. Stipe Plazibat has also been signed to fill the void left by the departing Ken Ilso, who has left Bishan Stadium to play for Kedah FA in the Malaysia Super League.

The Protectors have retained the service of long serving captain Jumaa’t Jantan as well as elegant South Korean midfielder Song Ui-Young. Centreback Abdil Qaiyyim will add defensive grit to the Home United backline and French defender Sirina Camara has been retained for the 2017 season.


Brunei DPMM – the dark horses

One team that has not garnered much attention is Brunei DPMM. The Bruneian club ended their 2016 S.League campaign strongly, winning four of their last five matches.

2016 has been a transition year for DPMM as the new foreign player rule meant that all clubs could only field three non-local players instead of five as permitted in DPMM’s 2015 title winning campaign.

The sudden rule change meant that more responsibility was placed on unproven local players, a factor that perhaps affected their performance at the start of the 2016 campaign.

Brunei DPMM 2016 S.League (Photo credit: S.League)

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The bulk of the squad has been renewed for the 2017 season and with a year of experience under their belt, things should be more settled for the Bruneian team.

They have retained Rafael Ramazotti, who will hope to repeat his goalscoring feats, which won him the 2016 S.League top scorer. Former Sarawak FA striker Billy Mehmet has also signed for DPMM from fellow title challengers Tampines Rovers while ex-FC Basel and SC Bastia centreback Francois Marque will complete the Bruneian team's foreign quota.

The 2017 S.League season is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in recent history. With local clubs making a concerted effort to improve ahead of the season, it will be tough for the Japanese outfit to repeat the successes of 2016.