Warriors FC 2
Albirex Niigata 0
An S-League title race that appeared to be Albirex Niigata's for the taking will have a chapter of uncertainty added to its narrative after the league leaders slumped to a shock defeat yesterday against struggling Warriors FC.
The Japanese outfit are on 47 points with three games remaining but had been hoping to increase their seven-point advantage over second-placed Tampines Rovers to double digits. The Stags can now cut that lead to just four with a win tonight over defending champions Brunei DPMM.
For Albirex coach Naoki Naruo, last night's performance at the Jalan Besar Stadium was a wake-up call for his team in white, who went behind early on and struggled to impose themselves thereafter.
A deep, ninth-minute throw-in had caused confusion in their penalty area and Warriors midfielder Ridhuan Muhammad was unchallenged as he headed past goalkeeper Eita Kasagawa.
Few saw this coming as the White Swans' pass-and-move style had seen them plunder 45 goals while keeping a league-best 11 clean sheets. Albirex had not conceded in their past five games - a run dating back to August - but came undone in the simplest of fashions from another set-piece in the closing stages.
Substitute Hafiz Rahim's powerful header in the 86th minute from a corner was confirmation of the Warriors' status as Naruo's bete noire. The 41-year-old tactician has lost only four league games this term with two coming at the hands of the nine-time champions.
Naruo said via a translator: "The first goal was very, very big for us. We wanted to score first and that changed our game plan.
"We had to chase the game and the Warriors are a hard team to break down if they take the lead."
He will have two weeks to ponder this setback. Albirex, who captured the League Cup in July and will contest the Singapore Cup final with Tampines on Oct 29, next play Hougang United on Oct 14.
"We need to reflect on this result and work on our defending at set-pieces. Hopefully the players can recover and be more confident for the next match," said Naruo.
The upset came down to motivation, noted Warriors coach Razif Onn. He said: "We had a talk after our last match and felt the level of commitment from players wasn't enough. Today they showed they were really hungry to win."
In yesterday's other match, bottom side Garena Young Lions slumped to their 18th defeat of the season, losing 2-5 to Home United at the Bishan Stadium.
Haziq Azman (25th minute), Ken Ilso (45th, penalty), Juma'at Jantan (64th) and Faris Ramli (84th, 90th) scored for the Protectors while Shafeeq Faruk (30th) and Hami Syahin (70th) replied for the away side.