Albirex draw 1-1 with Hougang but gain edge in title race as Sailors lose to Balestier
As the Lion City Sailors' implosion continued with a third straight defeat, Albirex Niigata's 1-1 draw against Hougang United represented a point gained instead of two dropped for the Japanese side in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title race.
On a wet Sunday where both SPL matches were interrupted by inclement-weather suspensions, the Sailors threw away a 2-0 lead and lost 5-3 to Balestier at the Toa Payoh Stadium, where former Albirex attacker Ryoya Taniguchi scored a hat-trick for the Tigers.
This is the first time the defending champions had lost to the Tigers since their 2020 debut, against opponents they had beaten seven times and drawn once with a combined score of 35-7.
Perhaps fatally, they now trail leaders Albirex by four points at the top of the table with just three games to go.
This could prove to be a useful buffer for the Japanese side ahead of the top-two showdown on Friday.
Albirex forward Ilhan Fandi said: "All things considered, our draw is not the end of the world and we will not sulk too much because the next match is the big one.
"Credit to Hougang, they came here with a game plan to frustrate us, but we tried our best and did well to get a point. Most importantly, we did not lose and our advantage has grown."
At the Jurong East Stadium, it looked as though Hougang had done the Sailors a huge favour with a resolute performance.
Pedro Bortoluzo had served warning of the Cheetahs' intent when he struck the post in the ninth minute, and Andre Moritz's follow-up was cleared off the line by Keito Hariya.
The visitors found the breakthrough in the 29th minute by beating Albirex at their own game. A fluid passing move involving a one-two between Kristijan Krajcek and Bortoluzo ended with the former providing his 14th assist of the season for Moritz to slot in.
With time and space limited by Hougang's solid pressing, Albirex found more joy with a more direct approach than their usual passing game.
But when they created an opportunity, Mukundan Maran pulled off a good one-on-one stop against Tanaka in the 37th minute, before the post denied Kan Kobayashi four minutes after the restart. Later, the Hougang custodian also touched an Ilhan header onto the post.
As it started to rain, the White Swans' tails were up and they equalised when former Japan international Tadanari Lee showed his experience and ability to find a yard of space, before spinning and firing home in the 73rd minute, four minutes before the game was suspended for about 40 minutes due to activation of the Lightning Warning System.
Hougang emerged from the break with more attacking purpose, however, and Albirex were made to withstand a late onslaught.
It was then White Swans goalkeeper Takahiro Koga's turn to shine as he kept out Bortoluzo and Amy Recha with big saves before Moritz's left-footer cannoned off the bar in added time.
With the draw, Hougang coach Clement Teo saw his side remain sixth in the eight-team SPL, but was heartened by one of their best displays this term.
He said: "I'm very proud of the players. They would be disappointed because they created enough opportunities to win, but this was a very encouraging performance.
"The technical team worked so hard to analyse Albirex and prepare for this match, and the players executed the game plan almost to perfection. With some luck and composure, we would have won. But with this kind of performance, we can still end the season on a high."
The same cannot be said for the Sailors, whose title defence looks to have capsized in spectacular fashion.
Even a win on Friday against Albirex will not be enough to topple their rivals, as they need Tampines or Geylang to also do them a favour by taking points off the Japanese team in the final two games.
The Sailors will also have to deliver their side of the bargain by beating Albirex without their first-choice centre-backs. Pedro Henrique suffered a season-ending injury earlier and Hariss Harun will be suspended after being sent off against Balestier.
There is also a question mark over the fitness of star foreign attackers Kim Shin-wook and Diego Lopes, who were not in the matchday squad against the Tigers because of niggling injuries. Based on the circumstances and their recent displays, the ship has likely sailed.