Albirex Niigata (S) went seven points clear at the top of the S.League table after achieving their seventh successive win of the season by overcoming Geylang International 2-0.
Goals towards the end of each half by Naofumi Tanaka and substitute Masaya Jitozono were enough to stop the Eagles' three-match winless run on Friday night at Jalan Besar Stadium.
Geylang left Carlos Delgado on the bench to nurse an injury and his absence affected the Eagles in the attacking third.
It was no surprise that Albirex were largely on top of things in the first half, with Atsushi Kawata cracking the post with a thunderous 30-yard free-kick after just 10 minutes in.
Geylang had a rare chance six minutes later when Gabriel Quak’s slide-rule pass released Branko Cubrilo through on goal, but the Croatian forward’s heavy touch let him down as the ball rolled gleefully into Albirex goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa’s arms.
The Eagles could have gone 1-0 down on 26 minutes when Tatsuro Inui attempted to catch Syazwan Buhari off the line with an audacious 35-yard lob, but the latter went back in time to claw the goal-bound effort away.
It looked like the first half was about to end goalless before Tanaka’s intervention two minutes into injury time.
The left wing-back punished a static Geylang backline by ghosting into the box to meet Shuto Inaba’s looping cross and flicked a header past an onrushing Syazwan to put the White Swans into the lead.
With things still not going their way in the second half, frustrations mounted within the Geylang camp, with centre-back Shariff Samat’s studs-up challenge on Tanaka sparking a war of words between both coaches.
Hasrin then decided to throw Delgado and Sahil Suhaimi on for Nor Azli and Amy Recha respectively, but it was Albirex whom nearly doubled their lead on 71 minutes, with Syazwan somehow managing to push away Tomoki Menda’s header from point-blank range.
Shawal Anuar was introduced as Geylang’s last throw of the dice in the final 15 minutes and nearly created an instant impact, but the 25-year-old could only fire straight at Nozawa after an exciting solo run.
Centre-back Yuki Ichikawa was pushed into attack for the final 10 minutes, but the Eagles just could not bring the Albirex roof down.
Eventually the White Swans sealed the game deep into injury time with super-sub Jitozono firing home a dipping effort from 25 yards out that had Syazwan beaten, just minutes after his introduction.
The result meant the all-Japanese outfit pulled seven points clear of nearest challengers Tampines Rovers at this halfway point of the season, but coach Naoki Naruo was keen to play down the notion that they are champions-elect.
“Yes, today’s victory is very important but we still have a lot to improve (to be champions),” he said at the post-match press conference. “We missed many chances in the second half and that is something which we have to improve on.”
“It was a difficult game as Geylang have a lot of speed offensively. That’s why we needed 45 minutes to score the first goal, but I’m happy that we got the three points and the clean sheet.”
Meanwhile opposite counterpart Hasrin believes the rest of the chasing pack, including his side, are still in with a shout for the title race.
“There’s always still a chance,” he emphasised. “They (Albirex) are peaking right now, but they must remember other teams are still peaking or yet to peak.
“Look at Home (United); they’re moving up nicely. Let’s wait and see when the two teams play each other, I’m sure it’ll be an exciting game.
“It’s just another loss for us tonight. I felt we played well and I’m sure the boys can pick up their mood when they face Warriors FC next week in the Singapore Cup.”comments