By Suhas BhatFollow @@suhasrbhat
Reporting from the Jurong East Stadium
Having suffered the first defeat of their 2013 Great Eastern-YEO's campaign last week against Woodlands Wellington, the White Swans were in need of a win at the Jurong East Stadium to get their title bid back on track.
However, it was the home side that were on the backfoot after Zerka completed a nicely-worked move to put the Jaguars ahead in the 53rd minute. Before the celebrations could be completed, though, Albirex produced an instant fightback as Sakamoto scored two minutes later following some good work by Bruno Castanheira down the right flank.
Both sides then searched for a game-deciding second goal and went close with some gilt-edged chances but the scoreboard remained unchanged till the end, ensuring that the Jurong East outfit kept their five-point lead over third-placed Tanjong Pagar.
The first half was a dull affair as neither side could trouble the goalkeepers with any promising attacks. The away side had much of their men behind the ball with the trio of Zerka, Kamel Ramdani and Ismael Benahmed charged with carrying out rapid-fire counterattacks.
The White Swans were the more dangerous side with Takeshi Nagasawa, Sakamoto and Castanheira often trying long-range shots. Ramdani was the only player to register a proper effort on goal for their opponents as he did well to connect with a left-wing cross in the 28th minute, only for the Frenchman's header to go straight into Hiroaki Hara's hands.
Aside from that effort, Patrick Vallee's side were struggling to string together passes and get a sight of goal and goalkeeper Aurelien Herisson even had to resort to time-wasting techniques to slow down the tempo.
Veteran Shingo Suzuki, employed as a right-back for the night, was especially proving to be a nuisance for the visitors and was regularly dictating the play down the flank and even managed to trouble Herrison with a rasping left-footed drive.
Nonetheless. the tables were turned after the break as Tanjong Pagar scored the opener following Albirex's failure to deal properly with a corner in the 53rd minute.
The set-piece was swung in from the right but a poor clearance allowed Walid Lounis to head the ball into Zerka's path and the Moroccan managed to dispatch it into the back of the net with a brilliant volleyed effort.
Buoyed by the goal, Tanjong Pagar played aggressively to try and press their advantage but their urgency proved to be their undoing just two minutes later. Collecting the ball down the right, Castanheira did well to skip past Azhar Ahmad's challenge and sent in a low cross that Sakamoto easily converted for his fourth goal of the season.
The goals served to liven up the match and Nagasaki even attempted a 40-yard strike five minutes later but the French goalkeeper was equal to the effort.
Zerka, who was winning a majority of the aerial battles, did collect a yellow card for simulation a short while later though as he could not keep hold of the ball when under pressure inside the box.
Had a penalty been given, it would certainly have been harsh on Masahiro Ishikawa, who was having a terrific game in the heart of defence and was also sending in crossfield passes befitting that of a classy midfielder. The 23-year-old also found himself at the edge of the six-yard box in the 70th minute after a smart one-two with Castanheira but somehow managed to fire over the crossbar.
He might have had reason to regret that miss seven minutes later as defensive partner Kento Fukuda was muscled off the ball inside his own half by Ramdani, but the Jaguars could not take advantage of their numerical superiority in that attack as the midfielder opted to squeeze a cross in from the byline when a shot would have served him better.
With time fast running out, both sides were aware that the next goal would likely prove to be the winner but despite showing plenty of endeavour, neither was able to carve out any further clear-cut opportunities, although one bright spot for Albirex was the return from a long injury lay-off for talented defender Yuki Ichikawa, who was brought on with five minutes to go.
The 26-year-old also went the closest to scoring a goal as he met Nagasaki's free-kick from the halfway line with a firm header that narrowly went over the crossbar, and with that miss went the final meaningful chance of the contest.
Tanjong Pagar will now have a trip to Brunei to look forward to as they take on DPMM FC on Sunday in their next S.League fixture.
Image courtesy of Albirex Niigata (S) FC