And then there were two.
The final stretch of a frenetic title chase for the 2011 S.League championship will be effectively between Home United and Tampines Rovers as dark horses Albirex Niigata (Singapore) fell further off the pace after being held to a 1-1 draw at Hougang Stadium on Monday evening.
Following Friday’s injury-time heartache against Gombak United, a second successive stalemate has left their hopes of a first-ever S.League title hanging by the thinnest of threads.
Coupled with Home’s 2-1 victory over Woodlands Wellington in a simultaneous fixture at Bishan, Albirex now find themselves seven points behind, with only three games remaining for the Jurong East outfit, while Home have a further game in hand.
Albirex coach Koichi Sugiyama remained sanguine about his side’s title chances, refusing to look further than their next game against Tampines, as he promised the White Swans would give their all until it was mathematically impossible to win out.
However, he lamented the physical nature of the Hougang players, whose combative approach earned them six bookings from referee Abdul Malik Bashir.
“I was surprised by our opponents’ dirty play, and the referee, as usual, was not on our side enough,” noted Sugiyama.
“But I’m proud of my players, who never got angry; they kept on playing, respecting football. I’m impressed by the attitude of my whole team.”
This has been by far the White Swans’ most impressive season since joining the league in 2004. Despite beating all their direct title rivals bar Tampines this season, ultimately it has been dropped points against mid-range teams such as Hougang, Gombak and the Courts Young Lions in recent weeks that have proved to be their undoing.
In truth, both sides had enough chances to walk away with all three points, but a combination of good goalkeeping and the woodwork kept the scoreline down to the solitary one apiece.
The game got off to a sluggish start and fans only started to stir midway through the half when Albirex went ahead with their first effort on target. Shotaro Ihata had the freedom of Hougang in the box to head into the bottom corner off his skipper Shimpei Sakurada’s pinpoint right-wing centre, giving Fadhil Salim no chance.
That sparked the game to life, and Vitor Borges gave the visitors a warning that they were in still in the game with a stiff low shot from the edge of the box that Yoshito Matsushita did well to palm away four minutes from the half-time break.
Barely two minutes later, Hougang were level. Borges turned provider this time round as he skipped past his man on the right before cutting back for the unmarked Mohd Noor Ali, who had the simple task of sweeping home for a deserved equaliser.
Borges emerged from the dressing room after the break clearly on fire, as he drove into the Albirex box turning one way and then another before unleashing an unstoppable shot against the crossbar.
Noor Ali was next to have a go, as his effort from just outside the box sailed narrowly over.
The visitors were clearly rocking, but knowing that nothing less than a win would be enough to keep their title dreams alive, they poured forward for the elusive winner.
Sakurada came closest to a breakthrough as his pointblank header from substitute Bruno Suzuki Castanheira’s cross was brilliantly tipped away by Fadhil.
As they continued to attack in numbers, Hougang very nearly nicked all three points as first Mamadou Diallo and then Noor Ali were denied by a clearance off the line and the Albirex goalkeeper respectively.
As Malik blew for full time, the Albirex players slumped to the ground, knowing that their wait for an historic first league title in Singapore will no doubt be carrying on into a ninth season, barring a major miracle.
Hougang coach Aide Iskandar was delighted with the result, having gone into the match without the suspended trio of Shariff Abdul Samat, Jordan Webb and Faizal Amir while Diego de Oliveira sat out through injury.
Having lost to SAFFC last week, they next face a third successive team in the title mix in Home in a match that could have huge significance in the destination of the championship.
It is a fact not lost on Aide, who spent nine successful years at Bishan as a player and was part of the last Home team to lift the title in 2003.
“While I wish Home all the best, come next Tuesday I will put all sentiments aside and concentrate on making sure that we go for all three points, so that we can finish as high as possible,” he declared.
“We will have Jordan and Faizal back, but we’ve lost Noor Ali, Fazli (Jaffar) and Ratna (Suffian) after tonight through yellow cards.
“However, we showed tonight that despite us missing a few of the boys, we were very brave, and all of them played according to plan. It was not easy against a team like Albirex, which is why I’m so proud of them.
“We had the chances to win it too and should really have won it today.”