Balestier Khalsa 0
Albirex Niigata 1
With just five matches to go, league leaders Albirex Niigata further tightened their grip on a maiden S-League football crown after dispatching struggling Balestier Khalsa 1-0 at Jalan Besar Stadium last night.
Victory lifted the White Swans to 44 points and extended their lead at the top of the nine-team table to four points, while the Tigers remain eighth on 14 points. Second-placed Tampines Rovers have 40 points.
A solitary Rui Kumada strike was enough to settle the fixture.
Albirex coach Naoki Naruo said: "We want to win all our remaining matches to secure the title and tonight was one important match that we managed to get the victory in. It puts us in a good position in the long run.
"Tonight, I would have wanted us to score more goals and I think we have to improve the ideas in leading up to our attacks. Even though we were aggressive, we should have done a lot better in finishing and been more clinical."
For the first time this season, Balestier fielded their vaunted Croatian strike force of Niko Tokic and Miroslav Kristic but the duo offered minimal threat.
The Tigers employed long-ball tactics to feed the two strikers but their efforts were fruitless. Central defenders Kento Fujihara and Atsushi Shirota proved too quick, as they read Balestier's intentions well.
Despite fielding six defenders, Albirex did not sit back. Instead, attacking full-backs Mikiya Yamada and Naofumi Tanaka bombed forward to supply hit-man Atsushi Kawata, while the deep-lying Kento Nagasaki controlled the midfield.
A natural left-back, Tomoki Menda was deployed on the left wing to pin the Tigers down high up the pitch.
Albirex's fast-paced and aggressive football paid dividends in the 13th minute when a quick counter-attack saw Tanaka squaring the ball for Kumada, a defender recently deployed as a striker, to tap in. It was his second goal in four matches.
Balestier coach Marko Kraljevic conceded that his team were unable to deal with the title contenders' high-tempo game, saying: "The possession and chances were not in our favour but we held up. They came at us in full attack mode but we managed to defend and not let the pressure get to us."
But like a tough taskmaster, Naruo is still unhappy with his team's display and demands more.
He said: "I'm happy with getting the four-point lead again but I'm still unsatisfied with tonight's performance. We have to improve in areas like our attack if we want to secure the title."
In yesterday's other match, Brunei DPMM defeated Warriors FC 3-0 in Bandar Seri Begawan.