Despite controlling early proceedings and taking the lead, the Lion City Sailors fell to a 4-2 defeat to title rivals Albirex Niigata (S) in a thrilling top-of-the-table Singapore Premier League (SPL) clash at Jurong East Stadium on Friday night.

M Anumanathan drew first blood for the champions, but Albirex came back and led at half-time through a lethal brace by Kodai Tanaka.

The White Swans extended their lead through Kan Kobayashi before Kim Shin-wook came off the bench to pull one back for the Sailors, but the night belonged to the home side – who added a fourth through Tadanari Lee to seal the three points in front of a sell-out crowd. 

The result meant Albirex closed the gap on the table-topping Sailors to two points with a game in hand, with Sailors Head Coach Kim Do-hoon left lamenting the critical mistakes that led to the loss.

“One of the disappointments tonight was not being clinical and precise enough to finish the chances we had. Another one was conceding too early after scoring the first goal. If we had been able to keep the lead longer, it could have been a different game. 

“This was a game that we really wanted to win, but the result turned out otherwise – so huge apologies to the fans who were giving us awesome support till the final whistle,” said the 52-year-old. 

In a game played under rainy conditions, the Sailors looked sharp in the opening exchanges as Diego Lopes and Hafiz Nor drew excellent stops from Albirex goalkeeper Takahiro Koga within the first 20 minutes. 

Kim’s men duly took a deserved lead in the 21st minute, with Anumanthan benefitting from Diego Lopes’ cut-back to fire home albeit via a deflection for his first goal for the Sailors. 

However, the joy proved to be short-lived as Albirex equalised just two minutes later – with Tanaka popping up at the back post to nod home Masaya Idetsu’s deep cross from the right. 

The 22-year-old – who scored the match-winner the last time both sides met in June – proved to be the standout performer once again. In the 38th minute, he cut inside Amirul Adli before unleashing a curling shot from the edge of the box for his second goal of the night. 

Tanaka then turned provider to tee up Kobayashi to lash low past Hassan Sunny in the 56th minute to make it 3-1 for the hosts. But the Sailors rallied and reduced the deficit in the 74th minute, courtesy of substitute Shin-wook who came on 11 minutes earlier.  

After intercepting a loose ball, captain Hariss Harun drove forward to release Song, who in turn laid it off for Shin-wook to thump an emphatic finish past Koga and spark hopes of a Sailors comeback. 

Hassan then produced a stunning save to deny Kobayashi from point-blank range in the 79th minute, but the 38-year-old was left helpless for Albirex’s fourth goal five minutes later. Idetsu floated an excellent cross into the area for former Southampton man Tadanari Lee to head home. 

The Sailors battled to the finish, but eventually went down to their third defeat of the season in what is turning out to be an enthralling SPL title race. 

But a bullish Coach Kim refused to look too much into the current title equation and preferred to focus on the 10 remaining games left in the season. 

“Obviously it’s a huge disappointment tonight, but it’s too early to make any judgement (on the title race). We just have to shake this result off, keep our heads up and get ready for the next match. 

“We’ll evaluate and go through the match videos to see where we didn’t do well and try not to repeat the same mistakes again. What I want to tell our fans is that we’re going to fight and give everything to become champions again,” said the former Ulsan Hyundai man. 

The Sailors will host Balestier Khalsa in their next SPL match next Saturday (6 August).