Albirex Niigata 3 Warriors FC 2
In a statement of intent, Albirex Niigata signalled their S-League title ambitions by beating a spirited Warriors FC 3-2 with a last-gasp goal on a night when the Japanese football club were not at their best.
Championship pretenders usually have the ability to grind out results even on their off days and the White Swans did just that, shaking off three weeks of rust from the Singapore Cup and international break to go 10 points clear at the top of the nine-team table.
Even though they started the game at Jurong East Stadium on a dull note, with few chances created and Japanese 10-goal leading scorer Atsushi Kawata shackled, Albirex had other players to rely on.
Tatsuro Inui was alert, pouncing on a rebound to open the scoring in the 24th minute. The midfielder doubled his tally two minutes later when he converted Naofumi Tanaka's low cross.
But the Warriors mounted a fightback and scored through forwards Nikola Rak (36th minute) and Jonathan Behe (65th). It was Frenchman Behe's 10th goal of the season, putting him top of the scoring charts alongside Kawata.
Albirex coach Naoki Naruo believed his team had a narrow escape, saying: "I thought we would win comfortably today but our mistakes cost us. After their equaliser, we woke up and went back to our usual style of football, and thankfully we found the winner.
"The three-week break did affect us. You can see in the first half we were not performing up to standards but in the second, we eased into it and became comfortable."
All season long, Albirex had showed why they are the league leaders with their style of play, which involves aggressive pressing, balls sprayed to the flanks for overlapping full-backs Tanaka and Tomoki Menda, the tempo dictated by deep-lying playmaker Kento Nagasaki and the finishing of Kawata.
But Albirex can switch from their silky football to a more direct approach to pull rabbits out of the hat.
Warriors coach Razif Onn noted: "We played very well in the second half, but Albirex started to aim towards their target man instead of playing it from the back and that's where we got caught out."
A case in point was midfielder Daichi Ishiyama, who broke through in the 89th minute to lob goalkeeper Yazid Yasin for the winner.
But coach Naruo foresees a difficult second half of the season. He said: "As you can see, every game is difficult for us and what's important for us is to keep winning every game to build on our 10-point lead over Tampines Rovers."
In last night's other match, Balestier Khalsa and Hougang United drew 2-2 at Toa Payoh Stadium.