Zulkiffli returns from a two match suspension to give his team the three points and inflict the White Swans with a second consecutive defeat
This season's surprise package, Balestier Khalsa got back to winning ways after two games without victory and rose to second in the table, as they beat Albirex Niigata 2-1 in front of a strong 2502 crowd at the Jurong East Stadium.
Returning forward Zulkiffli Hassim proved to be the hero for Balestier as he scored a goal in the first-half and provided the assist for his team’s winning goal in the second half. Albirex defender Kunihiro Yamashita's goal in the first-half proved to be mere consolation for the hosts.
Both teams started their seasons strongly but were winless in their previous game and in a bid to change the team’s fortune; both teams made a host of changes to their starting line-ups.
Albirex chose to leave midfielder Musashi Okuyama and forward Yasuhiro Yamakoshi on the bench, while Balestier left Tengku Mushadad and Chang Jo Yoon on the bench and missed defender Syed Thaha due to suspension.
The good news for the Tigers fans was that Zulkiffli was free to play again after his suspension. Despite the forward being reported for racial abuse against Woodlands Wellington defender Fabien Lewis, the case is still under investigation, and he was cleared to play.
Zulkiffli proved to be the spark the Tigers were missing in their last two games, in which they lost 3-1 to Geylang United and drew 1-1 with Courts Young Lions. He tormented the Albirex backline with his constant charges down the flanks and also combined well with teammate Park Kang Jin to create trouble for the home side.
It was not long before Balestier took the lead. On 28 minutes, Yamashita lost the ball to Park and the midfielder slipped it to Zulkffli who blasted the ball home from 20 yards out to give his side a 1-0 lead.
But that goal seemed to be a wake up call for Albirex and Yamashita redeemed himself seven minutes later when he scored the equalizer for Albirex.
Atsushi Kimono’s flick on from Hidekazu Yamamoto’s cross reached the defender and he made no mistake in the box slamming the ball passed Balestier custodian Joey Sim to make it 1-1.
Balestier started the second half brightly and nearly got a goal in the 54th minute, but midfielder Ruhaizad Ismail's shot from 25 yards rattled the cross bar before being headed out by Yamashita.
Six minutes later, goal-scorer Zulkiffli stole the ball from the Albirex defence and slid it beautifully to the on-rushing Park to fire into the net to make it 2-1.
Albirex then brought on Okuyama and Yamakoshi in an attempt to find the equaliser. Super-sub Yamakoshi who grabbed all his three goals after coming on as a substitute nearly scored in the 73rd minute but he headed an easy chance over the bar, when in truth he should have buried it.
Balestier defender Hamqaamal Shah then tried his luck with a loop from 40 yards out in the 84th minute but Albirex’s goalkeeper Takuma Ito was equal to the task as he tipped it over brilliantly.
Time eventually ran out for the White Swans who slumped to their second consecutive loss and their fourth game without a win.
Balestier next host SAFFC next Thursday at the Toa Payoh Stadium, while Albirex will visit Hougang United at the Hougang stadium next Friday.