As defending champions boasting a star-studded squad that would have made all of their competitors looking on with envy, Lion City Sailors were huge favourites to claim a second consecutive Singapore Premier League crown in 2022.
On Friday evening, with two games still to play in the campaign, the Sailors' title defence came to an end as a decisive 4-2 loss to Albirex Niigata (S) saw the latter crowned champions with an unassailable seven-point lead.
The Sailors initially showed fight by cancelling out Ilhan Fandi's opener through a Kim Shin-wook effort in the 16th minute, but it was not long before they were overrun by a White Swans outfit inspired by hat-trick hero Kodai Tanaka.
The fact that LCS were not even able to take the championship fight down to the wire is remarkable considering they looked to be cruising to back-to-back triumphs at various points throughout the campaign.
Nonetheless, a shocking run of four straight defeats that culminated in their most recent loss to Albirex -- with two coming against bottom-half opposition in Geylang International and Balestier Khalsa -- ultimately proved costly.
So just where did it all go wrong for a Sailors side that can boast a starting XI of Singapore internationals, in addition to a foreign quartet of former Benfica man Diego Lopes, seasoned UEFA club competition campaigners in Maxime Lestienne and Pedro Henrique, as well as two-time AFC Champions League winner Kim, who featured for South Korea at the 2018 FIFA World Cup?
The most obvious moment would be the abrupt midseason departure of last season's title-winning coach Kim Do-hoon back in August.
While the official reason given by the parties involved was a simple mutual agreement to terminate Kim's contract, it is believed that the club decided to part ways with the South Korean tactician for his poor conduct in a touchline altercation in a game against Tampines Rovers.
Filling his void was academy director Luka Lalic, undeniably a rookie at this level. Yet, it is hard to apportion too much blame in this direction given his first three games at the helm actually resulted in staggering 10-1, 7-0 and 9-4 victories.
In a year that also saw the Sailors make a creditable debut in the AFC Champions League, it is also difficult to claim that additional exertions was a factor -- although the SPL did expand to a 28-game season in 2022 from the previous 21.
Their six ACL group-stage matches took place at one go back in April while, with the Singapore Cup only taking place at the conclusion of the league campaign, LCS never really had to juggle domestic league, cup and continental commitments.
Take away the recent four-game losing streak and the Sailors would only have been beaten thrice in the 2022 SPL season, while they still boast a formidable record of 86 goals scored and 38 conceded -- hardly a poor record.
Quite simply, the Sailors may ultimately have been dethroned because more deserving champions emerged in Albirex.
The White Swans are no strangers to success and this year's triumph marks their fifth title in seven seasons.
It may be easy to forget now but, before the Sailors came onto the scene with huge ambitions that were backed up by significant investment, Albirex were actually the dominant force in Singaporean football.
As they do each year, Albirex went about their preparations for 2022 by assembling an almost brand-new ensemble of players that they knew would be good enough to see them challenge.
Tadanari Lee garnered most of headlines as a former Southampton man who scored the winning goal for Japan in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup final, and while he has been a valuable contributor even at the age of the 36, the revelation has been Tanaka -- whose hat-trick on Friday took his season tally to 31 goals.
Kan Kobayashi has offered the creative spark in midfield, Jun Kobayashi has led by example as captain and the White Swans' rock in defence, while Daichi Omori and Masahiro Sugita have been standouts in the wide positions.
And then, there was also Albirex's savvy midseason acquisition of the talented Ilhan, the third son of Singapore legend Fandi Ahmad and younger brother to BG Pathum United duo Irfan Fandi and Ikhsan Fandi.
Still only 19, Ilhan has averaged almost a goal a game with 14 goals for the White Swans since his arrival at Jurong East Stadium, combining with Tanaka and Lee as an irrepressible attacking triumvirate.
So perhaps what went wrong for the Sailors was solely the fact that Albirex were the better, far more consistent team this season. And they deserve credit for that.
After winning their maiden SPL title last year as the hunters, the Sailors have now found out just how difficult it is backing it up as the hunted.
They will most certainly be on the hunt again in 2023.