SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE
Tampines Rovers 3
Albirex Niigata 4
They huffed and puffed, and came agonisingly close to becoming the first Singapore Premier League (SPL) team to take points off runaway leaders Albirex Niigata this season before they were dealt a sucker punch in the last minute.
Even a maximum and valiant effort from Tampines Rovers was not enough to halt the defending champions' relentless march as a last-gasp goal from defensive midfielder Daiki Asaoka gave the White Swans a thrilling 4-3 win at Our Tampines Hub (OTH) yesterday.
The win was Albirex's ninth on the trot and stretched their lead over Balestier Khalsa in the nine-team standings to 14 points.
Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga, who saw his men concede more than once for the first time this year, praised his men for their mental fortitude, saying: "This is our third game in one week and I was worried about the players' physical condition and I am happy to win even though they are tired. I want to give credit to them and I will give them a good rest."
Tampines coach Jurgen Raab was similarly effusive in his praise for his courageous Stags.
The German said: "We came back really well, it was a great fight and a good reaction from the players. Under these circumstances, when many of them (are) fasting during Ramadan, I am very proud of their performance."
It took Albirex just eight minutes to take the lead when left midfielder Ryujiro Yamanaka, deputising for the rested Adam Swandi, cut in from the left before drilling home with his right boot.
Tampines equalised in the 24th minute through a close-range finish from striker Fazrul Nawaz, but burly striker Shuhei Hoshino restored the champions' lead with a glancing header in the 47th minute.
That took the SPL's leading scorer's tally to nine, two more than DPMM's Ukrainian marksman Volodymr Pryyomov.
The Stags' Japanese winger Ryutaro Megumi drew his team level again in the 63rd minute, only for Albirex to regain the lead through Yamanaka.
Tampines celebrated wildly in the 76th minute when Zulfadmi Suzliman equalised with a spectacular strike.
That looked to have given Tampines a deserved draw but Albirex pulled a rabbit from the hat in the final minute when Asaoka launched a piledriver from 30m to seal the win.
Even though Raab was satisfied with his players' display, he was less happy with the SPL fixtures.
Citing the example of Albirex getting regular action with nine games played while Tampines have played only six so far, he said: "There is such a big gap now and it gives us additional pressure to win every match.
"The spectators want to see teams playing every week, they want to see the changes in the (league) positions every week."