The Lion City Sailors took the lead against Albirex Niigata (S) on Sunday (16 July) evening and looked set to add another twist to the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title race, but ultimately fell 3-1 to the White Swans at the Jurong East Stadium. 

While Sailors’ Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković paid tribute to the spirit and drive his team displayed on the pitch, the defeat was for him, a sobering body blow. 

“We have to be realistic, this result means our fight is now for second spot in the SPL to ensure we qualify for the AFC Champions League (ACL) next year – and that is an important target to hit,” said the 44-year-old.

The result saw Albirex leapfrog Tampines Rovers into top spot in the nine-team SPL standings. Both teams are level on 44 points but the White Swans have a game in hand. The Sailors are in third, five points adrift.

“The league title is not in our hands anymore, but there is a lot left to play for, and we will continue fighting because even if there is a slight chance to go for the title we’ll give it all we’ve got.”

The Sailors started the match brightly, with new recruit Richairo Živković putting the ball in the back of the net in the 10th minute only to see the goal chalked off for offside following a VAR review. 

The Curacao international looked to be gelling well with his new teammates as he got more game time under his belt, following up on his disallowed goal by turning provider instead. 

He set up Maxime Lestienne for a golden opportunity in the 26th minute, easily brushing off a challenge from Asahi Yokokawa before laying off for Maxime to shoot. The Belgian’s initial shot was saved and his goal-bound rebound from the edge of the six-yard box was valiantly blocked on the goal line by Shunsaku Kishimoto. 

But it was by no means one-way traffic at Jurong East. 

In the 13th minute, Sailors’ custodian Zharfan Rohaizad needed a full-stretch dive to tip Seia Kunori’s strike behind for a corner and keep the scores level. 

And moments after that Tadanari Lee – who set up Kunori’s chance on goal earlier – charged towards goal with only Zharfan standing between him and the Sailors’ goal. This time it was the goalkeeper’s outstretched foot that prevented the Sailors from going behind in the first half.

“I have to admit that the opponents are physically strong, and they are compact on the pitch, playing patterns,” said Ranko. “But we had several opportunities to score in the first half. Against an opponent like this, you are going to be in for a long game if you don’t take those chances.”

The game sprung to life when Yokokawa was deemed to have handled the ball in the Albirex penalty area, and it was Richi who took responsibility for the 73rd minute penalty spot kick. The former Ajax Amsterdam man sent substitute goalkeeper Hyrulnizam Juma’at – who came on for Hassan Sunny who suffered concussion in the first half – the wrong way to score his first goal in a Sailors’ shirt.

But the Sailors could not hang on to the lead. 

Shodai Yokoyama stabbed the ball past Zharfan in the 79th minute to level scores on the night. And just three minutes later, Lee cleverly redirected Kunori’s strike into the back of the net, giving Albirex the crucial advantage.

It was full-on attack mode from then on, with Ranko throwing on Abdul Rasaq Akeem and Bill Mamadou to add physicality and height to the Sailors’ frontline as they went in search for the all important equaliser.

In the dying moments of the match, Rasaq found himself with a golden opportunity to equalise, but his effort thundered off the underside of the crossbar. 

With the Sailors throwing men forward in search of the equaliser as the clock ticked down at Jurong East, Albirex capitalised on the gaps that opened up in the away side’s backline. It was Riku Fukashiro who scored off a swift counter-attack to cement the White Swans’ victory in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

“I am not disappointed with the way we played, just disappointed with the result. It was a really good game for the fans to see – a good advertisement for the league too – but for us, it was disappointing especially after leading 1-0,” said a gutted Ranko who found a sliver of a silver lining.

“I am happy that Richi played the full 90 minutes, and for a striker, it is always important to score. The first goal will be good for his confidence, and we will expect more from him in the months ahead.”

The Sailors will only have three days to recover before hosting Tanjong Pagar United on Thursday (20 July) at the Bishan Stadium.