New Lion City Sailors coach Kim Do-hoon cleared the decks on his Singapore Premier League debut but his new-look side were held to a 1-1 draw by leaders Albirex Niigata last night.
There were six changes to the line-up from the Sailors' last outing - a 1-0 win over the Young Lions on May 22. Shahdan Sulaiman and Saifullah Akbar were suspended but influential winger Gabriel Quak, defenders Naqiuddin Eunos and Aniq Raushan and the league's most expensive player ever, Diego Lopes, were left out.
Singapore captain Hariss Harun made his debut, Adam Swandi started for the first time this season and Aqhari Abdullah came in for his first start since a 3-1 loss to Hougang United in March.
But the Sailors were still unable to get the better of defending champions Albirex, who have 28 points and remain a point above them with nine matches to go. The draw enabled the Japanese side to maintain their record as the only unbeaten team in the SPL this term while the Sailors have now failed to win their last four meetings.
The clash between the SPL's top two teams was played in front of 100 fans at the Jurong East Stadium. In line with the return to phase 2 (heightened alert), it was the maximum allowed.
Another 100-odd fans took in the action through the fences around the stadium.
In first-half stoppage time, Albirex's pressure finally yielded the opening goal. They were awarded a penalty after Aqhari was adjudged to have clipped Albirex defender Yu Tokiwa in the box. Ryoya Taniguchi stepped up and fired his penalty past Hassan Sunny.
The Sailors, who were tepid in the first half, turned it on in the second half, helped largely by the introduction of their prized asset, Brazilian playmaker Lopes.
It was his intelligent pass down the left that freed Hafiz Nor to produce a cross for Stipe Plazibat - their leading marksman with 10 goals who was often isolated up front in the first half - to tap in for the equaliser in the 72nd minute.
And just before full time, the Brazilian's trickery almost yielded the winning goal as he ghosted past Albirex's defenders. But his shot was too tame to trouble the goalkeeper.
Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi said: "In the first half, we had many chances and a few more in the second half. Our players have to improve their accuracy in shooting. I am not happy that the Sailors dominated the game in the closing moments. I want my players to have more belief that we can win the game.
"We had enough chances to win the game. I am disappointed we cannot get the three points. We take one game at a time and the title is not on our mind."
Kim said: "I told the players at half-time that we were playing well and that we should be able to come back. We are a strong team and we should be (more) confident on the ball."
Hassan added: "To be honest, we could have won it. That's football and we settle for the point."
Meanwhile, Hougang, considered outsiders for the title, have an opportunity to spice up the race and move within a point of the Sailors if they can beat Tanjong Pagar today.