It was a case of what might have been for Risto Vidaković and his Lion City Sailors at the Jurong East Stadium on Thursday night (9 March), as a contentious 15th-minute red card for M Anumanthan turned the Singapore Premier League (SPL) fixture against Albirex Niigata (S) on its head.

Despite battling manfully for the remaining 75 minutes, the numbers game caught up with the Sailors, with Albirex emerging as 4-0 victors on the night.

“The team was doing well in the first 15 minutes of the game, and there was not much more I could ask from them,” said a stoic Risto after the match.

“It’s already very tough to play against the strongest team in the league, but with one player down, it becomes even more difficult, and we had to struggle for 75 minutes,” he reflected.

“But I’m happy with how the team fought to the end, as it’s not easy to maintain the same intensity when you have 10 men. It’s hard to analyse the game well as when you play with one man down, the game is completely different.”

The Sailors enjoyed a bright start to the game which saw them relentlessly close down the reigning league champions, denying them the time and space to play out from the back on their own turf.

The turning point, however, came in the 12th minute when Anu pulled Albirex’s Tadanari Lee near the halfway line to prevent the Japanese forward from having a free run to Zharfan Rohaizad’s goal.

While referee Syarqawi Buhari initially showed Anumanthan a yellow card for the offence, he was recommended by Video Assistant Referee (VAR) Jansen Foo to head to the pitchside monitor to take a second look at the incident, due to the possibility of it being a denial of an obvious goalscoring opportunity. 

After reviewing the footage again, the referee deemed so and showed the Sailors defender a straight red card instead.

When asked about the sending off, Risto reserved judgement, asserting simply that it completely changed the complexion of the contest. 

“It’s clear, the game was broken after the sending off,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. 

“From my place, it’s difficult to see the incident as it happened so fast. I need to see it again, as I’m not sure if our other defenders can reach the ball or not. I don’t know 100% what happened, so I need to do a deeper analysis.”

It was indeed an uphill battle for the Sailors in the remaining 75 minutes of the match.

Albirex broke the deadlock in the 30th minute through an unfortunate own goal by Sailors centre-back Lionel Tan. Seven minutes later, the White Swans doubled their lead through Ryo Takahashi.

Despite the odds being stacked against them, the Sailors came out for the second half with renewed determination that was further tested when a disappointed Kodai Tanaka limped off with what looked like a knee injury in the 50th minute. 

But the Sailors continued to take the game to Albirex and could have easily pulled a goal back in the 72nd minute, but substitute Shawal Anuar headed wide from a corner.

At the other end of the pitch, a combination of heroic defending, impressive goalkeeping, and wayward finishing prevented Albirex from increasing their lead. 

But the tiring Sailors’ resistance was eventually broken again in the 87th minute through a Kaisei Ogawa free-kick goal, before Seia Kunori put the icing on the cake for Albirex with an accurate finish two minutes later.

The Sailors currently find themselves fourth in the table with six points from three games, and will next take on Geylang International at the Bishan Stadium next Wednesday (15 March).

Risto was confident that despite the short four-day period before first hosting Geylang then taking on fellow Bishan Stadium-resident Balestier Khalsa on Saturday (18 March), his charges will be ready. 

He said simply: “I’m confident we will bounce back and go into those games looking to win.”