Albirex loss keeps door open for Tampines
Title chasers suffer shock loss and give Stags some hope
(Ridhuan Muhamad 9, Jonathan Behe 86)
They knew if they won the match last night, then a first Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League title would all but be in their grasp.
But, instead of opening up a 10-point lead to their closest rivals, Albirex Niigata are now seven points ahead of Tampines Rovers, after a shock 2-0 loss to Warriors FC at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
In a season that has produced little joy for the record nine-time champions, yesterday's performance provided plenty for the Warriors to smile about, as they kept the usually prolific Albirex attack at bay with a resolute and disciplined display, while hitting their opponents with set-piece goals from Ridhuan Muhamad and Jonathan Behe.
Tampines play their game in hand tonight against Brunei DPMM, and could reduce the deficit to four points but, with three matches to go for both teams, Albirex coach Naoki Naruo recognises they are still in the driver's seat.
"For me, Warriors are a very strong team and we knew it would be tough… Now, it's important for us to learn from this and avoid conceding from set-pieces again," said the 41-year-old.
"We will continue to focus on one game at a time and, despite this loss, I want the players to go out for the next match with a confident mindset."
With his charges holding the best defensive record in the competition, Naruo certainly would not have expected them to concede in the manner which they did just nine minutes after kick-off.
From a long throw by Madhu Mohana, Ridhuan was somehow left unmarked inside the box and expertly guided his header past a hapless Eita Kasagawa.
Albirex attempted an immediate reply and Atsushi Kawata came close in the 12th minute when his header smacked off the bar, before Tatsuro Inui lashed a shot just wide from the edge of the box six minutes later.
Apart from those couple of chances, however, the Warriors were doing well to choke the opposition forwards, largely restricting them to speculative attempts.
A snapshot by Shuto Inaba in the 52nd minute was the only save Yazid Yasin had to make, while Masaya Jitozono failed to find the target with a fizzing effort on the hour mark.
The breakthrough looked to have finally arrived for the White Swans in the 70th minute when Kawata broke free inside the area, only for Hafiz Osman to produce a brilliant last-ditch tackle just as he was about to pull the trigger.
With four minutes remaining, the Warriors sealed the win.
Again, the White Swans were uncharacteristically disorganised at a set-piece, allowing Behe to head home Shaiful Esah's corner.
"Of course, we came in with a game plan, but you also need luck to be on your side to beat a side like Albirex," said Warriors coach Razif Onn.
"After our previous draw with Balestier (Khalsa), we talked about showing more commitment and the players showed today that they are hungry and capable of playing good football.
"Although we can't achieve anything this season, we are still looking to finish the year with two more wins in our final couple of matches."
- WARRIORS: Yazid Yasin, Madhu Mohana, Hafiz Osman, Kento Fukuda, Zulfadli Zainal, Poh Yi Feng, Shaiful Esah, Ridhuan Muhamad (Hafiz Rahim 74), Nikola Rak, Hafiz Nor (Hafiz Sulaiman 90), Jonathan Behe.
- ALBIREX: Eita Kasagawa, Hiroyoshi Kamata (Masaya Jitozono 59), Mikiya Yamada, Atsushi Shirota, Kento Fujihara, Naofumi Tanaka, Shuto Inaba, Kento Nagasaki, Tatsuro Inui, Daichi Ishiyama (Kazuki Mine 73), Atsushi Kawata.
- TNP MAN OF THE MATCH: Hafiz Osman (Warriors)
Home United: 5
Garena Young Lions: 2