Stags close in on Albirex as title race blown back open

A Fazrul Nawaz goal nine minutes from time breathed new life into the S.League title race after Tampines Rovers defeated Albirex Niigata (S) 1-0 on Friday evening.

The victory helped the Stags to close the gap to four points at the summit. It also ended the White Swan’s streak of 10 straight games.

While both team came into this meeting with a win in high-scoring matches, conservative approaches meant that this game was always going to be a tight one.

But Tampines grew in confidence as the game went on and pinned Albirex in their own half, never allowing their visitors to stamp their mark on the game.

Head coach Naoki Naruo suggested after the match that perhaps the occasion got to the players on the pitch.

He said: “There are three reasons [that we didn’t show our football tonight]. First, this was a very important game, so perhaps some players felt the pressure. Second, even though they have some injuries, Tampines still have very strong players.

“Also, today we played on natural grass, and we usually train on artificial turf.”

The White Swans hardly tested Joey Sim in the Tampines goal all night despite getting off to a good start when they almost took the lead just barely sixty seconds in through Atsushi Kawata’s free-kick that went narrowly wide. 

It took nearly twenty minutes into the game for Tampines to create an opportunity of note, but Fazrul Nawaz volleyed straight at Yosuke Nozawa after the goalkeeper’s punched clearance dropped nicely for him.

Fahrudin Mustafic over from a wicked Jermaine Pennant free-kick minutes later, before Fazrul forced a good save from Nozawa after getting in behind.

Webb had a decent chance in the 29th minute, but only produced a tame header straight into Nozawa’s arms.

The White Swans came out of the second half stronger, but like in the first half, they did not trouble Sim at all.

Inui’s sent a shot onto the roof of the net, while Hiroyoshi Kamata’s chipped attempt was off target.

Both Kento Fujihara and substitute Kazuki Mine were presented with clear-cut headers two minutes apart, but both disappointed with their efforts.

The defining moment came in the 81st minute, when a long pass from Shakir Hamzah sent Fazrul through and the striker’s shot took a huge deflection to leave Nozawa with absolute no chance of saving it.

Tampines head coach Akbar Nawas praised the team after the match for their collective effort that led to the victory, especially with the way they shut out Albirex. 

“Definitely the team can be proud of themselves… It’s not just about the back four. It’s about the team and today they defended as a team,” he said.

“If I say I’m not happy, then I’m lying. I’m definitely very happy. But you have to give Albirex some credit… they were very discipline.

“But we also played our own game and I’m very happy we won.”

However, Akbar did concede that the league break did come at an unfortunate time, but it’s nothing that fazes him.

“There might be some breaking of rhythm but we will see how it goes,” he stated.

“For me, the only significant team is to stay same, like how I started taking this team. We take one game only at a time.

“Every team would want a momentum. It might go well for us [to have a break], it might not. I want the players to know our target to look only at the next game. That way when the league comes we are looking only at the league.”

Photo: S.League