Albirex Niigata (S) took a huge step towards defending their S.League crown on Tuesday after playing out a 1-1 draw with Home United at the Bishan Stadium.
The White Swans got off to a dream start after just three minutes when left-back Naofumi Tanaka did the unthinkable, attempting a 30-yard effort from the left wing and actually catching Singapore international Hassan Sunny out at his near post.
Home came back strongly in the second half and equalised in the 72nd minute when the visitors failed to clear a Stipe Plazibat freekick, allowing Adam Swandi to send a deflected strike looping over a stranded Yosuke Nozawa.
However, despite bombarding their opponents with wave after wave of attack, the Protectors were just unable to again find a way through with Nozawa in inspired form.
With the result, Albirex move ten points clear at the top of the table but – more importantly – they remain 16 ahead of third-placed Home, who had loomed as their biggest contenders with their four games in hand.
WHAT THEY SAID
Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga: “My players worked very hard and played a very good defensive game. We analysed that Home United are very good at counterattacks and set plays and we tried to defend against that.
“Nozawa is very important to this team. The saves he made today were not due to luck but because of his experience. He positioned himself well so that, when the opponent made the shot, he is already in the correct position to make the save.
“We have not won anything yet – nothing has been decided. Today, we reached our initial target of 50 points. Our next target is now 60 points and we’ll make sure the boys achieve this.”
Home United coach Aidil Sharin: “We have to look forward. The boys gave everything, especially in the second 45. We were sloppy in the first half but now we have to motivate the boys to move forward. There are a few more games to go and anything can happen in football.
“Definitely, we will never give up. It’s about how you keep fighting and going and that’s the mentality of the club.
“Now we just have to look forward to our next league game against Geylang [International] and get back to a good atmosphere before our two Singapore Cup semi-finals against Albirex again.”
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Can Albirex still be caught? No, simple as that.
Not only are they now in possession of an even healthier lead than before, they have been the most consistent team this season and just do not make mistakes. Let alone enough to relinquish the ten-point lead they currently hold over second-placed Tampines Rovers.
Could the White Swans go on to do the quadruple once again? There appears to be no reason why not, especially with the Community Shield and League Cup already in the bag.
Still, the best chance for their rivals to prevent that will now come in the Singapore Cup and – in knockout football – anything can happen.
In the league this season, Home have won one and drawn two of their meetings with Albirex, proving that they can match it with the Japanese outfit on their day.
Curiously, the only two sides that have inflicted defeat on the White Swans in the league this season are Home and Hougang United, the two remaining local sides in the Singapore Cup semi-finals.
There is also the prize of continental qualification for two teams, with Tampines and Home in pole position to claim it at the moment.
However, Geylang, Warriors FC and Hougang – the latter via the Singapore Cup – would all be fancying their chances too.
So, while the S.League title race is all but mathematically a done deal, there will still be plenty to play for in the weeks ahead.
Photo credit: S.League