SINGAPORE - It was a super Sunday (Nov 22) for Singapore Premier League (SPL) leaders Albirex Niigata as they not only beat title rivals Lion City Sailors 3-2, but saw fellow contenders Tampines Rovers held 2-2 by bottom side Tanjong Pagar United.
With the match kicking off 35 minutes late due to lightning, the wet conditions did not stop both sides from delivering an entertaining encounter at Bishan Stadium.
Interestingly, it was the Singaporean players who played a key role for the Japanese club, as midfielder Iman Hakim, 18, switched play well from right to left and found Hiroyoshi Kamata, who released Tomoyuki Doi to thump in a 13th-minute opener.
At 1-1, Ryosuke Nagasawa was the provider when he seized onto Tajeli Salamat's loose pass to set up midfielder Fairoz Hasan for another open hit in the 34th minute.
Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi later praised Iman's courage and ability to hold onto the ball and lay on passes, and Fairoz's tireless running on the right flank.
But the hosts did well to conjure set-piece replies each time they fell behind in the first half, even without top scorer Stipe Plazibat, who is out with a hamstring strain.
Former national skipper Shahril Ishak showed all his experience to win a 22th-minute penalty which Song Ui-young converted. Later, Tajeli made amends for his error by heading in Shahdan Sulaiman's corner just before half-time as both teams entered the break deadlocked at 2-2.
Surprisingly, the 36-year-old Shahril was hooked for the restart and he was missed as the Sailors missed his link-up play and ability to win fouls in crucial areas.
Gabriel Quak and Doi both missed one-on-ones, and substitute defender Yasuhiro Hanada settled the tie with a sumptuous first-time finish from Kazuki Hashioka's driven cross in the 77th minute.
With the win, Albirex now have 23 points from 10 games, with Tampines two points back and the Sailors another four points adrift.
Getting his hands on the league trophy would be a remarkable turnaround for Fairoz, who was left without a club after his previous team Warriors FC were told to sit out at the start of the season.
The journeyman, who had also played for Hougang United, Young Lions, Gombak United, and Geylang International, said: "It was a bad start to the year, and I never expected Albirex to be the team that would give me the opportunity to continue my career.
"We take one game at a time, but we are almost there, and winning the league would be something special to remember my career by.
"The big difference and advantage of this team is how fit we are. We train from 9.30am to 11am in the morning heat and never stop running in every game. This gives us confidence to end the season strong."
Dejected Sailors goalkeeper Hassan Sunny refused to throw in the towel, and insisted his team will strive to win their remaining four games.
He said: "We lost today because they took their chances, we didn't and got punished. We were evenly matched and were unlucky not to get any points out of it.
"We failed today, but we are still not out of the running completely. We will continue our way with a positive mindset, and be ready if and when the teams ahead of us drop points."
The SPL title and qualification for next season's AFC Champions League are out of the Sailors' hands, but in a topsy-turvy season of unpredictable results, there could yet be more drama in the final four rounds.
While next Sunday's Albirex-Tampines clash at Jurong East may prove to be the title decider, Geylang International could turn out to be the key to decide which local team will represent Singapore in the Champions League.
Intriguingly, if Albirex are to be prevented from reclaiming the title they held from 2016 to 2018, Tampines and the Sailors may need Hougang United - who Sailors coach Aurelio Vidmar had called out for playing anti-football - to play party poopers in the Japanese side's last game of the season.