SINGAPORE - Albirex Niigata's charge towards retaining their Singapore Premier League (SPL) crown continued to gather pace on Saturday (May 15) evening after a 2-1 victory over the Young Lions at Jurong East Stadium.
While the Japanese side, who remain top of the table on 24 points, fought hard to secure a seventh win of the season with their trademark grit on display, it was their local boys - Nicky Melvin Singh and Ong Yu En - who proved to be the difference on the night.
The SPL rules state that Albirex must field two local players in the starting 11 of each match and if this tie was anything to go by, the rules certainly do not hamper the Japanese side.
Singh and Yu En, who both made their seventh start of the season, signed off with a goal and assist respectively.
The Singaporean duo's contributions were all the more important as Albirex were handed what could be a serious blow, when the league's joint-top scorer Kiyoshiro Tsuboi, who has 11 goals this season, was stretchered off in the 21st minute after a collision with Young Lions' Jacob Mahler.
The forward left the stadium on crutches with a knee injury.
Albirex head coach Keiji Shigetomi praised Singh and Yu En's contributions.
He said: "Both of them did well today. But we have high expectations of them, so there are many things they can improve on.
"I am happy for his (Singh) goal and it is due to good work from his team mates. He has improved but he still needs to work on his speed of decision making and retain the ball better.
"Yu En did well today also. His positioning and passing were good. He needs to maintain his performance for the full game as some of his decision making was not good when tiredness set in."
Shigetomi added that Tsuboi will be sent for a scan on his left knee on Monday and that the club would not comment further until then.
Albirex took the lead when Singh netted his first professional goal in the third minute. The forward ghosted into the box to meet Kazuki Hashioka's cross with a header past goalkeeper Nurshafiq Zaini.
The plucky Young Lions found a 19th-minute equaliser through Joel Chew, who knocked in the rebound after goalkeeper Takahiro Koga had spilled a long-range shot from Ryhan Stewart.
But Yu En put his stamp on the match when he recorded his second assist of the season, after his inviting cross from the right flank was met with a glancing header by substitute Fumiya Suzuki.
The 17-year-old Yu En, who put in a display worthy of a man-of-the-match award, impressed again for Albirex before being substituted in the 90th minute.
Another teenager, Young Lions left-back Raoul Suhaimi, made history by becoming the youngest SPL player at 15 years and 239 days.
He eclipsed teammate Khairin Nadim's record (15 years and 298 days).
Philippe Aw, whose Young Lions side are still winless this season commended his charges for a courageous performance.
He said: "The boys were brave to play out from the back and gave Albirex problems in the first half. We put in a hardworking performance (but) Albirex took their chances well.
"We conceded both goals tonight from crosses and it's something we have worked on. We will need to get back and work again on it."
In the evening's other match, Tampines Rovers moved to second, three points behind the leaders, after they beat Balestier Khalsa 5-1 at Our Tampines Hub.
Albirex fans would have been feeling a sense of deja vu when they saw top scorer Tsuboi stretchered off due to an injury in the 21st minute.
Last season, their forward Reo Nishiguchi led the line effectively and scored in the first five matches of the season before he suffered a sprained ankle and was forced out for four matches.
But as Nishiguchi was sidelined, Tomoyuki Doi stepped up effortlessly as the team's main forward and netted 11 times to finish as the league's top scorer and propel Albirex to the league title.
Since then, Nishiguchi and Doi have left to join Tanjong Pagar United and Hougang United respectively.
But now with their replacement Tsuboi likely to face a spell out injured, Albirex will need to find a talisman again to lead the charge.
Suzuki, who replaced Tsuboi, got the winner and worked hard to add to his first goal of the season but lacked the sharpness in front of goal, that the latter usually provides.
Albirex were able to create plenty of chances in the second half and just could not put them away.
Against other teams in the league, these chances may not come as easy and if Tsuboi is not around, then Albirex's title hopes could take a hit. They will badly need Suzuki to be their Doi this year.