Albirex pull ahead
White Swans do just enough to win and pull away from Tampines
BALESTIER KHALSA 0
ALBIREX NIIGATA 1
(Rui Kumada 13)
At some point in a season, title hopefuls prove their credentials by grinding out a crucial win despite not being at their best.
Such was the case for Albirex Niigata last night. The Japanese side toiled to a 1-0 victory over second-from-bottom Balestier Khalsa at the Jalan Besar Stadium to move four points clear at the top of the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League.
A 13th-minute strike from Rui Kumada got them on their way and they should have wrapped up the game, given their domination, before needing goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa to produce a splendid save right at the death to earn them maximum points.
Sterner tests await the White Swans between now and what could be a final-day decider against rivals Tampines Rovers, which is why coach Naoki Naruo refused to get overly excited with the victory.
"I believe we have to win all our remaining games in order to win the title, which is why this was an important game for us," he said.
"Of course, I'm happy with reclaiming the four-point lead, but we can still improve."
Albirex could not have asked for a better start as they edged ahead after 13 minutes, when Kumada darted into the box to stab home Naofumi Tanaka's low cross.
In the process, Kumada also took out Balestier goalkeeper and Singapore international Zaiful Nizam, who was taken to hospital with a facial injury.
With the Tigers having to throw on rookie Naqiuddin Nodin in goal, it looked as though Albirex could be on course for a handsome victory, but they failed to capitalise.
The usually deadly Atsushi Kawata spurned a decent opening in the 31st minute. He was unmarked in the box but volleyed off-target from a Kento Nagasaki free-kick, before Tomoki Menda sent a free header over from two metres out on the hour mark.
It still looked as though they were in for a routine win but, as the game entered its closing stages, Balestier gave their opponents a mighty scare.
Zulkiffli Hassim was first to test Nozawa in the 88th minute, when he latched onto Niko Tokic's lay-off and fired away a shot that Nozawa was just able to smother.
Then, deep into injury-time, Sheikh Abdul Hadi looked certain to equalise with a firm header from Jamil Ali's free-kick - only for Nozawa to brilliantly tip it onto the post.
"Of course, I'm disappointed with the result because we had a few chances but I'm very proud of the players," said Balestier coach Marko Kraljevic.
"I think we're finding form at the right time and it gives me a lot of confidence for when we meet them again in the semi-finals of the RHB Singapore Cup."