Football: Title favourites Lion City Sailors stumped by Albirex again in 2-2 draw

Lion City Sailors player Stipe Plazibat (centre) in action.
Lion City Sailors player Stipe Plazibat (centre) in action.ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

SINGAPORE - Big-spending Lion City Sailors had stumbled twice against Albirex Niigata last season with two losses in as many games, and the defending champions on Wednesday (April 7) proved again to be the biggest hurdle in the Sailors' hunt for a first Singapore Premier League title this term.

Up against table toppers Albirex, the Sailors needed a late equaliser from Brazilian defender and new signing Jorge Fellipe to salvage a point against the Japanese side in a 2-2 draw at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

While the Sailors started strongly in the tie, it was Albirex who took the lead in the 17th minute after the hosts' poor defending from a set piece saw Shuya Yamashita nodding in the first goal.

Slack marking from the Sailors again gifted the visitors with their second goal in the 42nd minute, as defender Yamashita rose highest to emphatically head in a corner kick from Kuraba Kondo.

Sailors forward Stipe Plazibat handed his side a lifeline with a header of his own off a deep cross from Nur Adam Abdullah to take the score to 1-2.

In the second half, the Sailors controlled most of the possession but failed to test Albirex goalkeeper Takahiro Koga.

In the 84th minute, a free-kick just outside the box from Shahdan Sulaiman was adjudged to have struck the hand of an Albirex player in the box, leaving referee Ahmad A'Qashah no choice but to point to the spot. But Plazibat's spot kick was palmed away by Koga.

With $2.9m star signing Diego Lopes shut out by the Albirex midfield and unable to make a difference, it was Sailors defender Fellipe who saved a point for his side as the 1.9m player headed into goal off a cross from the right flank from Naqiuddin Eunos.

Sailors head coach Aurelio Vidmar said: "I don't know what it is with Albirex but we are always coming back from a two-goal deficit. It doesn't make a game easier when it is like that but we conceded two set piece goals which is very unusual for us.

Crediting his players for their comeback, he added: "We showed a lot of character tonight in terms of continually playing our style of game and causing some issues for them in the defensive third. We had a couple of chances to finish off the game but it was not meant to be tonight."

The draw leaves Albirex on top of the SPL table on 11 points, one ahead of Hougang United and Tampines Rovers, who are second and third respectively on 10. The Sailors are fourth on eight points.

In the evening's other results, Tanjong Pagar registered their first point of the season in an entertaining 3-3 draw with Hougang United, while Tampines thumped the Young Lions 7-0. Balestier Khalsa recorded a second consecutive win after a 2-1 victory over Geylang International at the Toa Payoh Stadium.


Lion City's Brazilian defender Jorge Fellipe's shot is blocked by Albirex captain Kazuki Hashioka. The Sailors lost both games to the champions last season. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

Analysis

While the match against Albirex was only Lopes' second start, Singapore football's most expensive player endured a disappointing evening for the Sailors. The Brazilian, who was signed for a record sum from Portuguese top-tier side Rio Ave, was not able to stamp his mark on the game before being substituted in the 70th minute. 

Despite keeping possession of the ball at most times, Lopes was not able to make a telling contribution nor find a pass to break the sturdy Albirex defence.

In fact, his midfield partners Shahdan Sulaiman and Saifullah Akbar outshone him on the night.

But these are early days and Lopes could still be settling into life in Singapore and getting comfortable with his fellow Sailors. But with the price that the Sailors have paid for the midfielder, it is only normal that fans and the club will expect more from their star man.

And with the likes of Adam Swandi, Hafiz Nor, Song Ui-young and 2019 Player of the Year Faris Ramli being kept out of the starting eleven, as well as a chase to mount against leaders Albirex, patience may not be in abundance for Lopes.