SINGAPORE - They were just moments away from holding Singapore Premier League (SPL) defending champions Albirex Niigata to what would have been a richly-deserved 1-1 draw.
But, despite the valiant effort from the Young Lions, they were dealt a sucker punch in the 96th minute after goalkeeper Kenji Rusydi fumbled Hiroyoshi Kamata's strike to concede an own goal at the Jurong East Stadium on Sunday (April 21).
While Young Lions coach Fandi Ahmad was disappointed with the 2-1 loss, he praised his team's effort and refused to pin the blame on Kenji, highlighting the custodian's crucial saves in the second half.
"The boys did very well holding Albirex till the end and I thought the goalkeeper did very well until that slip off his palm," said Fandi.
"I thought we deserved at least a point, but this is just our luck. Football is about scoring goals. We need to improve on that because we're not scoring enough now."
After a slow start from both sides, Albirex broke the deadlock after 14 minutes when Naruki Takahashi headed home from Kyoga Nakamura's corner.
The Young Lions went in search of the equaliser, but long-range strikes from Syahrul Sazali and Sharul Nizam Anwar went wide.
In the 32nd minute, they pulled level through a Haiqal Pashia penalty after Albirex goalkeeper Kengo Fukudome brought Sharul down.
The match was then delayed for about an hour at half-time due to the lightning warning system being activated.
When play resumed, the Young Lions came close to taking the lead with narrow misses from captain Joshua Pereira and Nur Luqman Rahman.
The Albirex duo of Nakamura and Daizo Horikoshi were a constant threat to the Young Lions' defence, but crucial saves by Kenji kept the score level.
The away side looked to have done enough to secure a precious point until the 96th minute when Nakamura dribbled past three Young Lions players and passed to Kamata, whose strike slipped through Kenji's fingers to hand Albirex their third straight win.
Fandi said: "It happens when a cross comes and someone is free and you just take the shot. One shot, one goal and he (Kamata) took a really good shot there."
Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi was delighted with the result.
He said: "Today was a very difficult game for us. Although we scored the first goal and tried to get a second in the first half, they scored a penalty instead.
"After the long delay, I thought it'll get more difficult, but our players kept up their aggression. They fought for every ball and didn't give up all the way until the winning goal."
Ahead of their next match against Hougang United on Wednesday, Shigetomi said: "Until now, all the goals we've conceded have been from set pieces so we will look at them and try to defend the set pieces better."
Albirex moved up one spot to fourth on 11 points after the win, while the Young Lions, who will face league leaders Brunei DPMM on Wednesday, remain eighth in the nine-team SPL. In Sunday's other match, Balestier Khalsa drew 1-1 with Tampines Rovers at Bishan Stadium.