Singapore - New Lion City Sailors coach Kim Do-hoon cleared the decks on his Singapore Premier League debut but was still unable to secure a victory as his men were held to a 1-1 draw by leaders Albirex Niigata on Friday (July 23).
There were six changes to the line-up from the Sailors' last outing - a 1-0 win over the Young Lions on May 22. Shahdan Sulaiman and Saifullah Akbar were suspended but influential winger Gabriel Quak, defenders Naqiuddin Eunos and Aniq Raushan and the league's most expensive player in history, Diego Lopes, were left out.
Singapore captain Hariss Harun made his debut, Adam Swandi came in for his first start of the season and Aqhari Abdullah came in for his first start since a 3-1 loss to Hougang United back in March.
But the Sailors were still unable to get the better of defending champions Albirex, who remain a point above them with nine matches to go and maintained their record as the only unbeaten team in the SPL this term. The Sailors have also now failed to win in their last four encounters against Albirex.
The clash between the SPL's top two teams was played in front of 100 fans at the Jurong East Stadium. In line with the return to Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) on Thursday (July 22), only a maximum of 100 fans were allowed to attend.
Another 100-odd fans took in the action through the fences around the stadium.
The tension in the air was palpable from kick-off. Perhaps it was also a case of both teams finding their feet after the two-month break in the SPL.
The first half was a cagey affair. In the middle of the park, Hariss looked eager to impress his new employers, but he too seemed to be rusty after months of inaction.
But as the first 45 minutes wore on, Albirex gained momentum - a result of their superior physical conditioning. The Japanese side created several chances with Sailors custodian Hassan Sunny forced to pull off some outstanding saves.
But in first-half stoppage time, Albirex's pressure finally yielded the opening goal. They were awarded a penalty after Aqhari was adjudged to have clipped Albirex defender Yu Tokiwa in the box. Ryoya Taniguchi stepped up and fired his penalty past Hassan.
The Sailors, who were tepid in their approach in the first half, turned it on in the second half, helped largely by the introduction of their prized asset, Brazilian playmaker Lopes.
It was his intelligent pass down the left that freed Hafiz Nor to produce a cross for Stipe Plazibat to tap in for the equaliser in the 72nd minute.
And just before full time, the Brazilian's trickery almost yielded the winning goal as he ghosted past Albirex's defenders. But his shot was too tame to trouble the opposition's goalkeeper.
Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi said: "In the first half, we had many chances and a few more in the second half. Our players have to improve their accuracy in shooting. I am not happy that the sailors dominated the game in the closing moments. I want my players to have more belief that we can win the game.
"We had enough chances to win the game. I am disappointed we cannot get the three points. We take one game at a time and the title is not on our mind."
Hougang United, considered as the outsiders for the title, have an opportunity to spice up the title race and move within a point of the Sailors if they can secure a victory against Tanjong Pagar on Saturday (July 24).
It is only his first match in charge of the Sailors and perhaps it may be unfair to judge his philosophy on 90 minutes alone but the men in blue definitely looked different under the South Korean compared to his predecessor Australian Aurelio Vidmar.
Under their former coach, the Sailors were always eager to dominate possession and even in arguably tougher matches against the likes of Tampines Rovers, Albirex and Hougang United, they would leave plenty of space behind. The numbers were telling as well - in three matches against those opponents, the Sailors conceded eight goals.
But here, the Sailors seemed to be a little more tactically savvy, leaving little space to run in behind their backline.
The chances that Albirex created came mostly from intricate play via the wings. A drawback for the Sailors though was that with their pragmatic approach, their attacking play suffered as most of their chances came via counter-attacks. Stipe Plazibat - their leading marksman with nine goals - was often isolated up front in the first half.
But as they resumed the second half a goal behind, the Sailors seemed to lose their shackles a little, as star man Diego Lopes entered the proceedings and took the game to Albirex.
It remains to be seen if the Sailors will take the same approach against some of the league's lesser teams and if coach Kim will stick to being more defensively organised in the remaining nine matches of the season but based on this 90 minutes alone, it seems like his mantra is not too different from the legendary, former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson who once said: Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles. In nine matches, we will find out if this approach served the Sailors well.