SINGAPORE — The 28th season of the Singapore Premier League (SPL) began over the weekend, with the two title contenders - Albirex Niigata (Singapore) and Lion City Sailors - getting their campaigns off on the right foot with convincing victories.
On Friday (24 February), the Sailors kicked off the season with a 3-1 victory over Tanjong Pagar United at the reopened Bishan Stadium, thanks to the brilliance of their Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne.
Lestienne began the move that led to the opening goal of the season by Hafiz Nor in the 11th minute, then provided assists for the other two Sailors goals for new signing Kodai Tanaka in the 89th and 94th minutes.
Shahrin Saberin headed home Tanjong Pagar's consolation goal in the 92nd minute.
On Saturday, Albirex also started their title defence with a comfortable 3-0 win over last season's bottom club Young Lions at Jurong East Stadium.
Goals from Shuto Komaki (33rd minute), Asahi Yokokawa (51st) and Koki Kawachi (89th) ensured that the White Swans made the appropriate response to the Sailors' opening-day win.
Meanwhile at Our Tampines Hub on Saturday, the battle between the two eastern clubs ended in a 1-1 draw for Tampines Rovers and Geylang International.
Vincent Bezecourt got Geylang off to a fast start, finishing off a sweeping move with a crisp volley in the second minute. However, Tampines' new signing Faris Ramli equalised in the 16th minute, latching on to Kyoga Nakamura's superb through ball to slot past Hafiz Ahmad.
The most thrilling match of the weekend was the final one on Sunday, as Singapore Cup winners Hougang United found a late winner to clinch their opening match 3-2 against Balestier Khalsa at Bishan Stadium.
Kristjan Krajcek gave the Cheetahs the lead in a forgettable first half, hitting a downward volley that bounced up and looped over Balestier goalkeeper Hairul Syirhan Mardan in the 22nd minute.
It looked as if Hougang would cruise to an easy victory when defender Kazuma Takayama headed home from a corner in the 50th minute to double the Cheetahs' lead.
However, Balestier roared back to level the match. First, winger Daniel Goh finished off a swift counter attack by rounding Zaiful Nizam to slot into an empty net in the 59th minute.
Then in the 73rd minute, Ryoya Taniguchi's long-range piledriver crashed off the crossbar and into the net past the goalline, with the referee making the correct call to award the goal.
It had looked as if the two sides would settle for a draw, but Hougang forward Amy Recha pounced on a botched clearance by Balestier's defence to tap home from close range in the 87th minute to give his side three hard-earned points.
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