SINGAPORE - For the second time this season, Kodai Tanaka grabbed four goals to help Albirex Niigata beat Balestier Khalsa.
But the 5-3 win at Toa Payoh Stadium on Friday was far more difficult than the 6-0 victory at Jurong East in March, as they had to dig deep after trailing 3-1.
A jubilant Tanaka, who now leads the scorers' chart with 28 goals, said: "Even when we were 3-1 down, I believed I could score and help my team win, because we just cannot afford to lose the game."
Such conviction has helped the White Swans clinch a hard-earned victory, enabling them to go level on points with Singapore Premier League leaders Lion City Sailors, who are ahead on goal difference but have a game in hand.
Balestier were playing their first match under new coach Peter de Roo, and their players looked hungry to prove they are better than their second-from-bottom position in the SPL suggests.
After staying compact to restrict the White Swans to potshots from distance, Balestier took the lead when former Albirex striker Shuhei Hoshino crashed in a shot off the bar in the 31st minute.
The visitors came out of the break eager to impose themselves and Tanaka made it 1-1 when he stooped to head in Masaya Idetsu's cross four minutes after the restart.
But Albirex soon found themselves 3-1 down when Hoshino thumped in a loose ball in the 54th minute, before Kuraba Kondo netted from an acrobatic sliced effort two minutes later.
Not wanting to lose further ground in the SPL title race, Tanaka took over the show, scoring from Idetsu's cross again in the 62nd minute for his 14th headed goal this term.
He completed his hat-trick to make it 3-3 after 75 minutes when the home defence could not clear their lines, and Idetsu gave Albirex the go-ahead goal when his free-kick pierced the Balestier wall six minutes later.
Tanaka added gloss to the scoreline and gave himself a two-goal advantage over Tampines Rovers' Boris Kopitovic in the Golden Boot race when he scored an 85th-minute penalty.
Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga also claimed he never thought about losing, but admitted he was pleased to win a difficult match.
He added: "This was like a knockout match in a cup competition, but I just told the team to keep going for the next goal, and I'm happy we managed to turn things around."
De Roo, formerly Malaysia's technical director, praised his team for their "phenomenal" work rate, and urged them to be braver.
He said: "We started well... then we did not apply enough pressure and played too deep.
"There were times when Albirex were playing long balls, which should be to the advantage of the defending team, but every ball in our box was dangerous.
"We would have loved to get a result against a top-two team, but if we continue to show good attitude and the ability we have during training, I'm sure we will get better."
The avoidance of this banana skin could be the fillip four-time SPL winners Albirex need in their bid to overtake defending champions Sailors, who have won three games with an aggregate score of 26-5 since Luka Lalic took over the reins.
While this result will boost the Japanese team's morale, it will also serve as a reminder that there is no more margin for error from now until their showdown against the Sailors on Oct 7.
And with a hotshot like Tanaka, it won't be impossible to overhaul a goal difference of 12 with five matches to go.