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SPL 2022: Lion City Sailors 1-2 Albirex Niigata

Kodai Tanaka’s stunning left-footed winner in the second half and Masaya Idetsu’s long-range free-kick equaliser both came after Kim Shin Wook opened the scoring for the Sailors

Albirex Niigata's Kodai Tanaka fires the winner past Lion City Sailors' Hariss Harun. PHOTO: FAIZAL BASIR, SPORTPLUS.SG

Singapore, 24 June 2022 - Albirex Niigata are within striking distance of the Lion City Sailors after a stunning come-from-behind victory in a top of the table clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium, courtesy of a spectacular volley from Kodai Tanaka.

Making it five wins on the trot, Albirex have regained the form that saw them challenge for the title last season to narrow the Sailors’ advantage at the top to three points; the White Swans with the superior goal difference.

For more match photos, visit our Sport Plus photo gallery here.

Albirex Niigata celebrate Kodai Tanaka's winning goal in the top of the table clash against Lion City Sailors. PHOTO: FAIZAL BASIR, SPORTPLUS.SG

The Sailors were inflicted their first league defeat since Matchweek 2, when they lost away to Geylang International, but still remained top of the league with 28 points after 13 games played.

The duo of Kodai Tanaka and Tadanari Lee have led Albirex’s line for the past seven league matches undefeated, but head coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga was forced to ink Ilhan Fandi’s name on the starting 11 team sheet ahead of the former Southampton striker, who was sidelined with a collarbone injury.

Lion City Sailors' Nur Adam Abdullah bursts down the left wing. PHOTO: FAIZAL BASIR, SPORTPLUS.SG

It was Ilhan Fandi’s first league start of the season, coming off the back of two productive substitute cameos where he contributed two goals and an assist in 78 minutes of action.

A fiery start to the game saw the opening chance fall to Kodai Tanaka in the 23rd minute. The 1.76m-tall forward benefitted off a miscommunication between Pedro Henrique and Nur Adam challenging for a header to run clear through on goal. As the home crowd held their breath, Sailors goalkeeper Hassan Sunny produced a wonderful reaction save to deny Tanaka from breaking the deadlock.

Lion City Sailors' Hafiz Nor leaps to clear the ball from an Albirex attack. PHOTO: FAIZAL BASIR, SPORTPLUS.SG

Just minutes later, Sailors midfielder Song Ui-Young was released on the counter from an Albirex corner. A crunching tackle from Albirex’s Zamani Zamri stopped him in his tracks, drawing jeers from the Sailors faithful as referee Jansen Foo opted only to show a yellow card.

Both teams threatened equally as the half-time whistle approached before a flurry of action unravelled in the closing five minutes.

Lion City Sailors' Hariss Harun closed down by Albirex players Masahiro Sugita (number 7) and Ilhan Fandi. PHOTO: FAIZAL BASIR, SPORTPLUS.SG

First, Shahdan’s outswinging corner was met by the head of Kim Shin-Wook, whose powerful header down into the Astroturf ricocheted straight into the roof of the net gave the Sailors the advantage.

Just moments later, a superb in-swinging freekick from Albirex’s Masaya Idetsu from the left flank evaded everyone in the box, bouncing into the net from thirty yards out past Hassan Sunny to level the scores.

Sailors' Maxime Lestienne attempts a shot at goal in the first half of the match against Albirex Niigata. PHOTO: FAIZAL BASIR, SPORTPLUS.SG

At the break, Albirex head coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga made a tactical switch bringing on defender Reo Kunimoto for winger Zamani Zamri. Midfielder Kan Kobayashi moved into a more offensive role alongside Ilhan Fandi, Kodai Tanaka shifted wide, and defender Keito Hariya moved into central midfield.

The alteration paid dividends on the 54th minute mark, as Tanaka latched onto a deftly lofted pass from Kan Kobayashi to fire a wicked left-footed volley from the edge of the box into the bottom corner of the net. Within 12 in-match minutes, the White Swans had changed the complexion of the match.

Haiqal Pashia (left) of Lion City Sailors chases down Albirex Niigata's Daichi Omori. PHOTO: FAIZAL BASIR, SPORTPLUS.SG

Maxime Lestienne, who was a constant threat for the Sailors up against Albirex right-back Masaya Idetsu down the left flank, combined with teammate Diego Lopes but saw his near-post shot smartly saved by Albirex goalkeeper Takahiro Koga’s outstretched foot.

With a final roll of the dice, Sailors head coach Kim Do-Hoon sent on mercurial winger Faris Ramli, but the Singapore international only managed to waste a gilt-edged opportunity dragging a left-footed shot wide of the post with virtually the last kick of the game.

Lion City Sailors fans in full force at the Jalan Besar Stadium. PHOTO: FAIZAL BASIR, SPORTPLUS.SG

The Sailors manager did not mince his words in the post-match conference.

“It’s my fault as a coach. I take full responsibility tonight. Now it’s my job to study the next opponent and I’m going to work hard but today is on me,” coach Kim said.

“I just want to say a big sorry to the fans. On the performance side, we just have to improve. Today’s result will definitely shake us, but what’s more important now is playing our football and making our football more perfect. As a coach this is what I’m going to do to push my players,” he added.

The Sailors will host bottom-dwellers Young Lions at the Jalan Besar Stadium next Wednesday (June 29) at 7.45pm, while Albirex have a longer break before they face Tampines Rovers on Monday (July 4) at 7.45pm.

Albirex goalkeeper Takahiro Koga flies to punch the ball from a set piece as Lion City Sailors captain Hariss Harun attempts to challenge. PHOTO: FAIZAL BASIR, SPORTPLUS.SG

Writer’s Assessment

Kodai Tanaka’s hot-and-cold form saw the White Swans ebb and flow through four consecutive draws between March and April, before picking up a maximum 12 out of 12 points in the following two months.

The arrival of Ilhan Fandi in May has helped to add some much-needed attacking impetus to the squad, with galvanising 8-2 and 5-0 thrashings of Geylang International and Hougang United respectively.

Singapore's Putri Nur Syaliza (in red) dribbles past Hong Kong's Tsang Lai Mae Halasan. PHOTO: FAIZAL BASIR, SPORTPLUS.SG

Yoshinaga’s side now look like one with clear tactical instructions – for instance when the centre-backs have the ball in the attacking phase, it is almost instinctive for fullbacks Masaya Idetsu and Daichi Omori to push up the flanks, whilst the wingers tuck in to play in close proximity to the strikers by occupying central areas. This allows Albirex to progress the ball further up the pitch more efficiently leading to better opportunities for chance creation.

The White Swans are hugely improved from the disjointed side they were during the languid opening day 2-0 defeat to Tanjong Pagar United back in February. Should Yoshinaga continue to work his magic, Albirex could very well reclaim the league title that evaded them on the final day of the 2021 season.

Singapore's Putri Nur Syaliza (in red) dribbles past Hong Kong's Tsang Lai Mae Halasan. PHOTO: FAIZAL BASIR, SPORTPLUS.SG

The Sailors have never looked back from their promising Asian Champions League campaign, notching up four dominating victories with 15 goals scored before today’s defeat. The transformation of former-winger Hafiz Nor to the right-back position has been a masterstroke by manager Kim Do-Hoon after Tajeli Salamat’s exit to Geylang.

A winger by trade, Hafiz Nor provides a unique skillset from the right-back position – the ability to dribble past defenders one-versus-one. This allows the Sailors to add an additional attacking threat in the final third, allowing more space to be opened up behind opposition defences when defenders inevitably get dragged out of position to close down Hafiz Nor.

As we arrive at the halfway mark of the season, many expected the Sailors to be runaway leaders by now. But with 15 league games to play, Kim Do-Hoon’s men cannot afford to rest on their laurels with a bare three-point lead over rivals Albirex. The former ACL-winning manager will have to make full use of his experience to guide the Sailors to their second consecutive league title this season.

For more match photos, visit our Sport Plus photo gallery here.

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