Free-falling champions Lion City Sailors face do-or-die Singapore Premier League title decider against Albirex Niigata (S)

Defending Singapore Premier League champions Lion City Sailors take on leaders Albirex Niigata (S) in a potential title decider on Friday, where a win for the latter would be enough to secure a fifth crown in seven seasons. Singapore Premier League

Just at the start of September, Lion City Sailors looked destined to claim a second consecutive Singapore Premier League crown.

Even after having abruptly parted ways with last season's title-winning coach Kim Do-hoon -- not long in the wake of a 4-2 loss to title rivals Albirex Niigata (S) -- the reigning champions embarked on a stunning three-game winning run to suggest all was well.

In that dominant spell, they racked up 21 goals against hapless Young Lions (10-1), Tanjong Pagar United (7-0) and Hougang United (9-4), displaying the sort of form expected from such a star-studded outfit and similar to that which earned them a maiden SPL title in 2021.

The gap between them and closest challengers Albirex then was only three points but the momentum was certainly in favour of the Sailors, with the title racing looking theirs to lose.

Fast forward a month, while the Sailors are yet to relinquish their crown, they are contriving to do just that.

Three consecutive defeats -- including big upsets at the hands of Geylang International and most recently Balestier Khalsa -- has now allowed Albirex to not only overtake them at the summit, but establish a handy four-point advantage with just three games remaining.

The two title contenders meet for the fourth time this season on Friday and the equation is simple enough.

Win, and the Sailors will live to fight for another day. Lose, and Albirex -- the satellite team of the Japanese outfit of the same name -- will be crowned SPL champions for the fifth time in seven years.

Perennial contenders Albirex, renowned for their ability to constantly stay competitive despite regularly overhauling their squad on an annual basis, deserve credit for the position they find themselves in.

Should they go on to return to the summit of Singaporean football, they would have done so on merit.

28-goal Kodai Tanaka has been a revelation, ex-Japan and Southampton man Tadanari Lee has provided valuable experience and his fair share of pivotal contributions, while mid-season signing Ilhan Fandi has been a revelation with 13 goals since joining from Young Lions.

But with all due respect to Albirex, or any of the SPL's other contenders, the 2022 SPL was always going to be the Sailors' to lose.

After all, the quality at their disposal is rich and diverse enough for them to field an entire starting XI of Singapore internationals.

Their foreign quartet boasts 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 Shin-wook, who featured for South Korea at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

A team that was good enough to notch two wins in their ACL debut earlier this year -- one against K-League 1 opposition in Daegu FC -- should, on paper at least, be coasting to domestic glory.

The fact of the matter is they aren't. Rather, they are struggling to stay in the hunt.

Part of it is down to the fact that Albirex, and the other teams that have masterminded victories over the Sailors in recent times, have risen to the occasion and not been willing to just roll over for the defending champions -- which is a positive for the SPL.

Yet, there can be no denying that the position LCS currently find themselves is has also been due to a curious free-fall that would have been unfathomable just a month ago.

All of these factors have aligned to set the stage for a real title-deciding epic at Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday.

It is always said that winning the league is the easy part. Defending the title is where things get trickier.

In such a do-or-die, high-stakes encounter against Albirex, the Sailors will have to display the true mentality of champions if they are to keep alive their hopes of retaining the status.