In what was largely regarded as the game of the week, neither Tampines Rovers nor Albirex Niigata were able to break the deadlock, as the sides drew 0-0 at Our Tampines Hub on Friday.
Table toppers Tampines, with three wins out of three, were taking the league by storm. They put five past fellow title contenders Hougang United on the opening day, before repeating the trick against Home United the following weekend, leaving their goal difference at a staggering +8 after just two matches. Those games were followed by a narrow 1-0 win over Eastern rivals Geylang International, and the Stags looked set to dominate both domestically and in Asia, where they had taken four points from a possible six, holding Hanoi FC to a draw in the process.
Albirex's fortunes couldn't be more different. Having swept every major trophy available to them in the last three years, they were off to a stuttering start in 2019. An uninspiring 0-0 draw with Home in the Community Shield was a sign of things to come, as they lost 1-0 to basement boys Geylang and drew 0-0 with ten-men Brunei DPMM FC, picking up one point and failing to even score, a far cry from the side which netted a league high 69 goals last campaign.
Chances at both ends
There was an early opportunity for Tampines, as winger Jordan Webb did well to win the ball back inside the Albirex penalty area. After beating his man, however, he flashed his shot narrowly wide of Kengo Fukudome's goal.
Albirex too went close in the first half. Breaking down the other end, Hiroyoshi Kamata flashed a tantalising ball across the Tampines' six yard box, taking goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari out of the game. All it required was a touch from frontman Daizo Horikoshi, but the sliding forward was unable to make contact.
Tampines attacked again, with Webb doing well to beat Fukudome to the ball before whipping in a cross for Ryutaro Megumi, who really should've done better as he haplessly prodded his effort wide from inside the six yard box. Huge let off for Albirex, who were almost caught out again just minutes later, as Daniel Bennett won the ball off Zamani Zamri in midfield, feeding Yasir Hanapi whose deflected shot was well saved by the foot of Fukudome.
Little of note occurred in the second half right until the very end. Jordan Webb darted into the Albirex penalty area and was clumsily bundled over by Souta Sugiyama. It looked to be a penalty, but the crowd at Tampines Hub were left disappointed as the referee gestured for a goal kick.
There was time for one last Tampines attack, against coming through Webb, as the Canadian skinned his marker and darted down the right flank, feeding Khairul Amri in the area, but the veteran's effort was straight at Fukudome. Huge chance missed, and he'll be kicking himself for not sticking it away, especially after grabbing the winner in that same goalpost last time out against Geylang.
Positive signs for Tampines
Gavin Lee and his players will definitely be disappointed that they failed to take all three points from this one, and that says a lot about how far Tampines have come. Finishing 26 points below the Japanese side last season, the Stags have come on in leaps and bounds this year, taking on all comers both at home and in the AFC Cup.
With Tampines looking the early favourites for the SPL title, they could be set for a tilt at the AFC Cup too. An impressive 3-1 away win against Yangon United was followed by a 1-1 home draw with Vietnam giants Hanoi, and if there was ever a time for the Stags to make their mark on the continent, it's surely now.
Albirex will look to build
They've still failed to find the net this season, but the White Swans can take great heart in their performance against Tampines. They created chances and defended well, boding well for the remainder of the season.
Having lost 6-0 to this same team in pre-season, Albirex will take this as a sign of improvement, and will look to notch their first win next time out against Balestier Khalsa. That'll be no mean feat though, with the Tigers looking impressive in the opening stages of the season. All to play for as we approach matchweek four of the embryonic SPL season.