SINGAPORE - With just 10 rounds of matches left this season, Albirex Niigata seized the initiative in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title race by defeating defending champions Lion City Sailors 4-2 at the Jurong East Stadium on Friday (July 29) night.
Albirex remain second on the table behind the Sailors, but are only two points adrift and have a game in hand. They will go top if they win that game - against bottom side Young Lions - on Aug 10.
In a game mostly played under a steady drizzle, a high-quality brace from star striker Kodai Tanaka helped the White Swans overcome their title rivals.
The Sailors took the lead in the 21st minute through an unlikely source in defensive midfielder M. Anumanthan.
Named in the starting line-up for just the fifth time this season to add some steel in the middle of the park, he found himself on the end of a cut-back by Diego Lopes and volleyed home past Takahiro Koga.
That lead lasted only about 100 seconds, before Tanaka stole a march on his marker Amirul Adli to meet Masaya Idetsu's deep cross at the back post, and nod home the equaliser.
In the 38th minute, Tanaka once again got the better of Adli when he took advantage of the space afforded to him to curl a shot into the top corner of Hassan Sunny's goal.
The two strikes took Tanaka to the top of the SPL scorers chart with 19 goals, one ahead of Tampines Rovers' Boris Kopitovic.
Tanaka continued to play a decisive role in the second half, and turned provider when he led a counter-attack and teed up Kan Kobayashi for a crisp finish to make it 3-1.
The White Swans could have wrapped the game up as early as the 68th minute from another counter-attack, but left back Daichi Omori dragged his shot wide under little pressure.
The Sailors pulled a goal back with 15 minutes left when substitute Kim Shin-wook blasted home from inside the box to set up a grandstand finish to the game.
Sailors goalkeeper Hassan then pulled off an astounding point-blank save from Kobayashi, but Albirex still found another goal to seal the three points in the 84th minute when Idetsu found substitute Tadanari Lee who headed home from close range.
All is not lost for the Sailors, as these two sides will meet again in the penultimate game of the season on Oct 7.
But they need a quick remedy to their poor form - they have won only once in their last four matches - and get some rhythm going.
Coach Kim Do-hoon's decision to leave import attackers Shin-wook and Maxime Lestienne, as well as the likes of Singapore international Gabriel Quak, on the bench also did not pay off.
The coach might also have further issues to contend with, as he has been charged by the Football Association of Singapore for violent conduct after allegedly headbutting Tampines Rovers assistant coach Mustafic Fahrudin last week, and could face a touchline ban.