The Lion City Sailors’ hopes of defending their 2021 Singapore Premier League (SPL) title went up in smoke on Friday (7 October) night with a 4-2 loss to Albirex Niigata (S) – a result that has instead sealed the White Swans’ fifth league triumph in seven years. 

In front of a sold-out crowd of 3,500 fans at the Jalan Besar Stadium, the Sailors managed to cancel out Albirex’s early opener and gave themselves a fighting chance while trailing 3-2, but ultimately fell to a fourth straight defeat. 

The loss meant the White Swans have secured an unassailable seven-point lead at the top of the table and are the 2022 SPL champions, although there is a thin silver lining for the Sailors who have a potential route back into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League group stages in 2023 by virtue of finishing as the SPL’s top local team. 

Sailors interim Head Coach Luka Lalić lamented the fact that a much-improved performance from the previous three matches failed to yield a positive result. 

“We didn’t lose the title in this game; we lost it in the previous three. There was a positive feeling before the game and everyone had the belief that we could win. You can see how much the boys went out there to fight for every ball and be aggressive in their challenges. 

“But we lacked that final touch and composure to convert the various chances we had, while Albirex took almost every chance they created – that’s the main difference. Congratulations to Albirex and we’ll try to bounce back in the Singapore Cup,” said the 35-year-old. 

Albirex drew first blood on five minutes through Singapore international Ilhan Fandi, who capitalised on a botched clearance to fire home a sweet volley from the edge of the box. 

The Sailors swiftly responded to make it 1-1 through South Korean front man Kim Shin-wook, who calmly finished beyond Takahiro Koga for his 21st goal of the season after being picked out by a gorgeous Adam Swandi ball over the top. 

The visitors went back ahead in the 37th minute with Ilhan teeing up Tanaka for a close-range header, before Luka’s men spurned a series of excellent chances to restore parity on either side of the break. 

Tanaka then grabbed a second to make it 3-1 in the 78th minute after doing just enough in a one-on-one with Hassan Sunny to get the ball over the line, but the Sailors found a lifeline six minutes later. 

Substitute Gabriel Quak coolly converted from the spot after Maxime Lestienne was felled in the box by Masaya Idetsu to halve the deficit and the Sailors went agonisingly close to finding an equaliser shortly after – with Maxime firing just over after skipping past a number of challenges. 

The Sailors piled the pressure late on and were made to pay the price for pushing numbers forward, with Tanaka taking full advantage by latching onto a long ball and lashing beyond Hassan to complete his hat-trick and seal the crown for the Japanese satellite side.

While there is the obvious disappointment of failing to retain the league title, Luka called for the Sailors to quickly shift their focus to winning the last piece of silverware on offer this season. 

“The feeling’s obviously not great, but our season is far from over – we still have the Singapore Cup,” stressed Luka. 

“It was nice to see the stadium being so packed – we have all our Sailors Academy’s players and their families here tonight – and the support was fantastic. 

“I would like to send big apologies to all our supporters; we know they’ll continue to be behind us for the Cup and we’re going to make sure we put up a strong performance in the tournament for them.”