SINGAPORE: Japanese side Albirex Niigata won the first edition of the Singapore Premier League (SPL) on Sunday (Jul 22), with three months to go before the 2018 season ends.
The title is their third in a row, having won the previous two S.League (SPL's predecessor) titles.
The White Swans' 1-1 draw against Balestier Khalsa at the Toa Payoh Stadium meant that they have a 19-point lead at the top of the SPL table. With just six games remaining, they are beyond the reach of closest rivals Tampines Rovers.
The draw, however, also meant that Albirex have lost their perfect record. Entering Sunday's game, they had won all their previous 17 matches.
But Balestier were unfazed and forward Hazzuwan Halim's equaliser early in the second half, which cancelled Kenya Takahashi's first-half strike from a free-kick, helped the Tigers become the first team to take points off the champions.
Despite clinching the title, Albirex head coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga was ruing his side's inability to continue their winning streak.
Addressing reporters at the post-match press conference, he said: "We set out to win every game and today we did not win, so we did not achieve what we wanted to do. We only needed a draw to be champions, but we couldn't get the win so there is some regrets.
"We are happy to clinch the title, this is our club's 15th anniversary and all these years have been spent building up our foundation for what we are achieving right now. There was a lot of hard work put in these 15 years so we hope we can push on further after clinching this title."
Yoshinaga blamed his team's "lack of precision" in the match for their failure to win.
"This is something we have to work on ... I think the boys realise now they have a lot to improve and when we go back to the training ground, I hope they will work harder so that the next match will be better," the 50-year-old said.
Albirex have been dominant all year and broken at least two records. No team has started the season with 16 wins until they did it this year, and they have gone 29 league games unbeaten stretching back to last year.
Even more remarkably, they have had to assemble almost an entirely new squad as the new rules meant that all but one of their 21-man squad have to be under 23.
They have scored the most goals in the league, finding the back of the net 54 times, and conceded a measly 11 goals at the back - the fewest in the league.
Striker Shuhei Hoshino leads the goalscorers' chart with 18 goals and goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa has had the most clean sheets with nine.
Two of their players, Ryujiro Yamanaka and Singaporean Adam Swandi, have the joint-most assists as well, along with Tampines' Yasir Hanapi and Brunei DPMM's Adi Said at seven.
Albirex will have a chance to set a new record for the biggest gap in points between the winners and runners-up. The current record is 20 points, set in 2002 by Singapore Armed Forces FC (now known as Warriors FC).