SINGAPORE - A pair of 2-1 wins on Saturday has seen the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title race momentum swing in favour of Albirex Niigata.
Tampines Rovers did the Japanese side, who won the last of their four SPL titles in 2020, a huge favour by beating defending champions Lion City Sailors at home, while Albirex eked out a narrow comeback victory against Young Lions at Jurong East.
With 54 points from 24 matches, Albirex have opened up a three-point lead at the top of the table, with four games to go.
Post-match, Sailors coach Luka Lalic demanded his players reflect on themselves after losing their last two matches.
He said: "Similar to the loss to Geylang, we made easy, silly mistakes, lost the ball and let them score twice. If we make such mistakes, and miss opportunities of our own, against serious teams, we will be punished.
"The pressure has been on us for some time, and now it will switch to Albirex, and it is up to us to chase them now. I asked the boys to take two days off for self-reflection, and we go back to work on Tuesday."
At Our Tampines Hub, the Sailors were missing a huge chunk of their starting defence with Brazilian Pedro Henrique injured, and fellow centre-back Hariss Harun and right-back Hafiz Nor suspended after their 3-1 defeat by Geylang International last Sunday.
As a result, they went for a new-look three-man central defence with Amirul Adli flanked by defensive midfielder M. Anumanthan and left-back Nur Adam Abdullah, as Izwan Mahbud was also preferred in goal over Hassan Sunny.
But more bad news followed with South Korean striker Kim Shin-wook ruled out of the match-day squad after suffering a groin injury during training on Friday.
Fellow imports, Brazilian playmaker Diego Lopes and Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne, started from the bench as they were not fully fit. This meant the Sailors kicked off with an all-local line-up.
In a high-quality first half that was matched by lusty cheering from Tampines' Yellow Knights and The Crew on the Sailors' end, Izwan justified his selection by producing two quality saves to deny Shuya Yamashita and Boris Kopitovic.
But he was helpless 10 minutes after the restart when Taufik Suparno robbed Anumanthan in the box to set up Kopitovic for a tap-in.
This sparked a madcap four-minute spell of frenetic football and top-class finishing.
Just 70 seconds later, the visitors made it 1-1 after second-half substitute Lestienne played a one-two with Adam Swandi and curled a beauty in off the bar and post.
Not to be outdone, Zehrudin Mehmedovic dusted himself off after being fouled by Anumanthan at the opposite end to fire a free-kick in off the bar in the 58th minute.
The Sailors brought on Lopes, and threw men forward in a desperate bid to salvage a point, but Adam's shot straight at Syazwan Buhari in added time was not good enough as third-placed Tampines celebrated wildly and the men in blue collapsed in disappointment.
Stags coach Gavin Lee said: "For 95 per cent of the match, we were top and applying what we trained for and set out to do. Yes, the Sailors may have had to deal with injury and suspension, but we don't decide their line-up, which is still full of Singapore internationals.
"I don't want to hide behind this, but we have a young squad compared to them, and they have demonstrated they can play at this level. We just need to learn from the experience of this journey and understand the importance of being able to consistently deliver this level of performance week-in, week-out, and we can move up to another level."
There is an uncanny similarity between this year's title race and the last, as the Sailors look to have thrown away the initiative yet again amid injury woes just as they did last season before Albirex slipped up themselves.
There remains scope for a late twist as the top two still have to meet at Jalan Besar on Oct 7, provided the Sailors can see off bottom-two sides Young Lions and Balestier Khalsa before that to keep pace.
The Sailors have rarely encountered such difficulties in a season where they have spent big to boost an already talented squad. With Henrique out for the season, how they respond in this big test of nerve will decide if they can retain their title.