Football: Albirex closes gap on SPL leaders Sailors with 2-1 win

SINGAPORE — Albirex Niigata came from behind to beat Premier League leaders Singapore’s Lion City Sailors 2-1 on Friday (June 24) to close the gap at the top of the standings to three points.

With the two teams set to meet twice more in the league, it looks like the Sailors title defense won’t go as smoothly as some thought.

In a thrilling match at Jalan Besar Stadium, both teams played high quality football to entertain the crowd of 1,821.

While the Sailors dominated possession of the ball, with Maxime Lestienne lively on the left wing, the White Swans proved dangerous on the counter-attack by canceling each other out.

The Sailors took the lead when Kim Shin-wook headed into the corner from Shahdan Sulaiman in the 41st minute, only for Masaya Idetsu to equalize from a free kick from a wide position just four minutes later.

Despite losing former Southampton striker Tadanari Lee to a broken left collarbone, Albirex was more than a game for the Sailors as they kept up their form and patience.

The visitors made the breakthrough nine minutes after the restart, when Kan Kobayashi played a delicious cut pass over Hariss Harun, and Kodai Tanaka fired a brilliant left-footed shot for the winner.

With his 13th goal in 12 games, Tanaka also joined Tampines Rovers’ Boris Kopitovic at the top of the scoring list.

The hosts had a host of injury-time corners but failed to make their chances count as Faris Ramli missed a late effort.

Analysis

Although we haven’t reached mid-season yet, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this will be a two-horse race.

What is interesting is the way the young people of Albirex took up the challenge.

None of their starters in this game were over the age of 23, but their tactical versatility – playing possession football against weaker teams and slugging against seasoned Sailors – was impressive.

Perhaps the title will ultimately be decided by the four matches between the top two. Interestingly, the Sailors have never beaten Albirex in seven SPL games since going public in 2020.

But at least the worry of a team running away with the championship is temporarily alleviated, and fans can look forward to an exciting run for now.