SINGAPORE - The foreign domination of the Singapore Premier League (SPL) may continue for a sixth successive season, despite the withdrawal of champions Brunei DPMM FC.
On Friday (Nov 13), Albirex Niigata - champions from 2016 to 2018 - returned to the top of the table after beating Geylang International 1-0 at Our Tampines Hub to move to 17 points from eight games and leapfrog Tampines Rovers on goal difference.
The Eagles got off to a nightmarish start early on when skipper Yuki Ichikawa could only foul Ryoya Taniguchi after being pickpocketed by the Albirex midfielder.
From the resulting third-minute free-kick, Tomoyuki Doi beat Hairul Syirhan at the near post for his sixth goal of the season and the winner.
However, Geylang, who left their trio of national forwards Khairul Nizam, Fareez Farhan and Iqbal Hussain on the bench to fulfil the Under-23 quota, did not buckle, and were unlucky not to score before the break.
They responded almost immediately with a good break down the left, but Harith Kanadi's shot flashed just wide. Firdaus Kasman and Barry Maguire also tested the Albirex goalkeeper, but lacked power and direction to beat Kei Okawa.
Geylang coach Noor Ali threw on Nizam and Iqbal at the start of the second half and also Fareez later on, but the elusive equaliser just would not come, despite the hosts seizing most of the initiative in the second stanza.
Nizam headed over Harith's cross in the 57th minute, while Iqbal glided past the Albirex defence only to be stopped by Okawa in the 87th minute as the White Swans held on.
Noor bemoaned the early lapse, and said: "It was too early and too easy. We responded well, but we did not expect Albirex to keep pumping long balls like this.
"This is not the same flowing football we look up to when they won the league from 2016 to 2018."
However, Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi praised his team for showing the necessary fighting spirit to rebound from last month's 2-0 loss to Tampines at the same venue.
He said: "This is always a difficult ground to come to. I agree our performance is not great, but sometimes you have to find ways to win, and we did that tonight.
"We are not thinking about the title yet, what is more important is that we focus on getting the three points in the next game."
In the other SPL match of the night, Lion City Sailors kept up the pressure on the leading pack by thumping Tanjong Pagar United 6-1 at Bishan Stadium to stay third with 14 points. Geylang are sixth with 10 points, seven in front of the winless Jaguars in the eight-team SPL.
League champions come in different forms, and if Albirex Niigata go on to win the SPL, they will be remembered more for their tenacity than beautiful football.
But winning ugly is necessary to lift trophies, and Shigetomi's side did just enough to land maximum points, just like how Chelsea ruled English football with a mean defence, solid set-piece routines and slim victories.
It may not make for pretty viewing, but the equation is simple: with Tampines wobbling and the Sailors having to play catch-up, six more wins and Albirex will regain the SPL title.