SINGAPORE - They had let a two-goal lead slip, but Albirex Niigata found it within themselves to conjure up a 94th-minute winner to beat fellow Singapore Premier League (SPL) contenders Lion City Sailors 3-2 on Saturday (Oct 24) and surge to the top of the table.
However, the dramatic finish at the Jurong East Stadium was shrouded in controversy as Albirex skipper Kazuki Hashioka appeared to have controlled the ball with his hand before setting up Reo Nishiguchi at the back post.
In a season shortened from three rounds to two due to the coronavirus pandemic, the big call could have a big impact on the title race as the Sailors remain sixth with four points from four games.
Sailors coach Aurelio Vidmar, who vented his frustrations on the dugout after the contentious goal, said post-match: "We are very unlucky not to get something out of this game. There was no football from them (Albirex) in the second half.
"It was handball and it is very disappointing to lose like this. This is a strange and short season and with one mishap, it could be hard to catch up."
Sailors forward Gabriel Quak added: "The comeback was encouraging but we would prefer a scrappy win. At the end of the day, the three points are what is most important, we don't want to just keep saying we put up a good fight."
Albirex, champions from 2016 to 2018, started off the brighter side and grabbed a 19th-minute opener when Sailors goalkeeper Hassan Sunny could only palm Hiroyoshi Kamata's cross for Tomoyuki Doi to slot in.
There was more sloppy defending from the visitors when Ryosuke Nagasawa seized onto Tajeli Salamat's missed clearance and score in the 36th minute.
The Sailors were missed injured playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman as they lacked pace and creativity in midfield, with striker Stipe Plazibat starved of quality service.
However, they were rejuvenated after the break. Hafiz Nor was set to be substituted but played a key role in starting the attack that led to Arshad Shamim heading on Plazibat's cross for Song Ui-young to pull one back in the 59th minute.
The Sailors had more attacking thrust with Quak's introduction 10 minutes later and the forward smashed home the equaliser in the 88th minute.
Against the run of play though, Nishiguchi scored for the fifth consecutive game before the team celebrated in front of the fans who dotted the perimeter of the stadium.
The 23-year-old said: "When it was 2-2, I looked at the clock and felt that with the many counter-attacking players we have, we have a chance to get the winner. And we never gave up until the final whistle."
With the three points, Albirex remain unbeaten and move top with 11 points from five games.
Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi added: "I'm happy with how the team got the goal in added time, but we still have to work on problem areas like how we allowed the Sailors to dominate possession in the second half to score two goals."
In Saturday's other match, Balestier Khalsa beat Geylang International 3-2 at Our Tampines Hub to climb to second, level on points with Albirex but with a poor goal difference and having played a game more.