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 By Kenneth Tan

Albirex Niigata (S) to cope without top scorer Sano for trip to Brunei

Reigning champions Albirex Niigata (S) will continue their relentless pursuit of a second successive S.League title when they face Brunei DPMM away at Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium on Saturday night, but will be without suspended top scorer Tsubasa Sano.

The White Swans have been in incredible form for the past couple of months, winning their last 11 matches in all competitions, including the 1-0 victory over Warriors in extra time to retain their League Cup crown in July.

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Two successive losses to Home United and Hougang United had sparked concerns over their title challenge, but Kazuaki Yoshinaga's side have bounced back with five straight wins in the league.

That includes a narrow 1-0 victory against bottom side Garena Young Lions a week ago, ensuring they stay nine points clear of nearest challengers Tampines Rovers -- albeit having played one game more.

Skipper Shuto Inaba, who scored the winner in that game, is keen to warn his side against complacency going into the business end of the season.

"We learnt a lot from last game," the 24-year-old told the S.League official website. "They played very defensively, making it hard for us to break them down. We also lost an important player to a red card midway through so it was difficult.

Tsubasa Sano and Albirex Niigata (S) celebrate
Albirex will miss the services of Tsubasa Sano, left, who has scored 18 S.League goals this season.

"But we spoke to each other after the game and discussed what the problem was. The only reason why we can win so many games in a row is that we are never satisfied even when we get a good result.

"I will tell the rest of my teammates that winning so many games is not the ultimate goal for us; this is because every player has their respective goals in every match which they play in."

While it may look like a straightforward task to take down an out-of-sorts DPMM side, it is worth noting that the White Swans fell to a 2-1 defeat the last time they visited Bandar Seri Begawan in Aug. 2016.

The Japanese outfit will also have to contend without the services of hot shot Sano, who will serve the first of his two-match suspension after his straight red against Garena Young Lions.

The 22-year-old has been prolific all year with 18 goals in the S.League alone, but Inaba believes his side can cope with his absence.

"It doesn't matter whether he plays or not," he insisted. "We have had matches where Sano didn't play, and we still managed to score.

"All the other players in the team train hard every day for their opportunity to play and are highly motivated, so I don't think we will have much of a problem."

On the other hand, DPMM will be missing three defenders with the trio of Haizul Rani, Hazwan Hamzah and mid-season signing Vincent Salas all out due to suspension.

Albirex will then face Home United next Tuesday at Bishan Stadium in a crucial game which may determine the fate of the 2017 S.League title race.

2015 champions DPMM have won only one of 15 S.League matches this season to sit in eighth spot in the nine-team league, just two points above Garena Young Lions.

Kenneth Tan is a Singapore-based football writer on S.League and AFC Cup for ESPN FC and FourFourTwo. Twitter: @KennerveT

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