SINGAPORE - Like a deadeye assassin, Albirex Niigata knew what their assignment was and professionally completed it - winning 1-0 at Hougang United on Saturday (Dec 5) to seal their fourth Singapore Premier League (SPL) title in five seasons.
Latching onto a missed clearance by Nazrul Nazari, Tomoyuki Doi set up Ryoya Taniguchi to finish clinically beyond Ridhuan Barudin in the 53rd minute for the only goal of the game, and sent the group of about 20 flag-waving Albirex fans and cheerleaders outside Hougang Stadium wild with delirium.
The White Swans' winners' cheque is $150,000 but as it turned out, they did not need to win in this closed-door match as second-placed Tampines Rovers were held 1-1 by Geylang International at Our Tampines Hub, which was open to 200 fans.
Hougang did not resemble a team that had no trophy or continental competition to play for, and made the brighter start. They could even have taken the lead after Nikesh Singh threaded Farhan Zulkifli through in the 20th minute, but the 18-year-old could not overcome the tight angle after rounding Kei Okawa.
Albirex top scorer Tomoyuki Doi struck the bottom of the post 12 minutes later, and both goalkeepers produced top saves to deny Hougang's Shawal Anuar and Albirex's Fairoz Hasan's long-range shots to keep it goal-less at half-time, before Taniguchi's intervention.
The final-whistle celebrations were muted compared to seasons before the coronavirus era, as the White Swans roared and exchanged hugs before acknowledging their supporters - on the opposite side of the fence - with a little cheer and dance.
Ultimately, Albirex were the deserved SPL champions as they have been the most consistent team in the last 45 days. Other than their two defeats by runners-up Tampines, they always found a way to win the other nine games after the restart, while their title rivals tripped on banana skins.
When striker Reo Nishiguchi was out with an ankle injury after scoring in each of his first five games, Doi stepped up to contribute 11 goals.
They were not short of leaders - when the chips are down, skipper Kazuki Hashioka can be seen marauding forward from his right-back position. The 23-year-old was the one who supplied the late match-winning assists in both 3-2 wins over Lion City Sailors.
Their superior fitness during a packed schedule also played a big part in their success. Just like on Saturday, Albirex were held goal-less at the break against Hougang, Balestier and Tanjong Pagar earlier, but simply stepped up a gear in the second half to win 4-0, 2-0 and 3-0 respectively.
And when they take the lead, they usually hang on to it to cross over the line for the win by hook or by crook.
Despite news of Tampines equalising through Baihakki Khazan in the last 10 minutes, and the prospect of late drama emerging - another goal from the Stags and Cheetahs would see the trophy destination switched - Albirex remained unflappable. Additionally, no team other than Tampines and the Sailors have managed to score against Albirex after the restart.
They also rode their luck as well, especially in their first 3-2 win over the Sailors when they threw away a two-goal lead, only to win in added time after Hashioka's handball that went unspotted in the build-up. In their penultimate game, Tanjong Pagar were also unlucky to have a late equaliser ruled out for offside before Albirex sealed a 3-0 win.
Overall, it was a true team effort as they figured out how to assimilate local players into their predominantly Japanese roster after seeming to struggle with the combination last season as they finished fourth; Singaporeans Fairoz, Gareth Low, Iman Hakim and Ong Yu En all contributed in midfield and attack throughout the season.
Albirex's latest triumph - their fourth after wins from 2016 to 2018 - and Brunei DPMM's victories in 2015 and 2019 make it six successive SPL seasons which foreign teams have won, and it is back to the drawing board again for local sides to plot a long-awaited reversal of fortunes in 2021.
The Eagles' point at Tampines ensured they took the second AFC Cup spot along with third-placed Lion City.