The second-placed Japanese side had stunningly clawed back from two goals down to take the lead but a goalkeeping howler saw the leaders come away with a share of the spoilsAfter losing to the same opponents on their own Clementi Stadium ground last season, Tampines Rovers were clearly keen to avoid such ignominy a second time as they came out of the blocks against Albirex Niigata (S), bent on asserting their superiority from the word "go".
But after taking a two-goal lead they somehow managed to surrender it before half-time, handing control to their opponents for most of the middle stages of the game.
Albirex went on to establish a 3-2 lead after 75 minutes and were looking the likely winners, especially since Tampines skipper Mustafic Fahrudin had been stretchered off and had to be replaced in the moments just before.
Of course, it was hard to write off the Stags as they had two of Singapore’s finest leading their line in Aleksandar Duric and half-time substitute Khairul Amri, but Albirex looked in control and it was only a monumental blunder by goalkeeper Hiroaki Hara that allowed the Stags to pull back to 3-3 in the 88th minute.
The gap between the two teams at the top of the table would have been reduced to five points had Albirex managed to hold their lead, but it was not to be.
Duric picked up his second goal of the game after Hara had raced well off his line only to miss an attempted punch, leaving the 43-year-old to tap into an empty net.
Duric had earlier opened the scoring after 18 minutes when he met Anaz Hadee’s cross from the right with a firm header that Hara could not hold, leaving the big man to slam home from close range.
Two minutes later, a corner swung over from the right by Portuguese midfielder Vitor Ladeiras was met at the near post by a bullet-header from Mustafic to have the Stags in a sound position.
But a 2-0 scoreline is often dangerous and so it proved, as Albirex finally found their attacking rhythm.
In the 32nd minute, free-scoring forward Kazuki Sakamoto slipped a ball through for Kento Nagasaki to slide home and make it 2-1.
On the stroke of half time, Sakamoto was free to head home after a precise cross from the left by Shingo Suzuki and all of Tampines' best-laid plans came undone.
The White Swans warmed to their task after the break and looked the better side for long periods, getting their noses in front in the 75th minute.
Out on the right of the penalty area, Suzuki curled a superb left-footer into the top-left corner of goalkeeper Ridhuan Barudin’s net to stun the home crowd.
It looked dire for Tampines after that despite some promising counter-attacking moves but when Albirex could not find a fourth goal, the Stags were able to find a third.
A long ball punted forward by Firdaus Kasman saw Duric giving chase.
Skipper for the night, Hara came racing to the edge of the area where he tried to punch clear but missed the ball altogether, allowing deadly Duric to steer the ball comfortably into the net to rescue the point.