South China had goalkeeper Yapp Hung-fai to thank after Eastern Salon held the champions to a goalless draw in their RedMR First Division soccer match at Mong Kok Stadium on Sunday.
The Hong Kong international had to make a number of acrobatic saves in a high-tempo match, which Eastern were determined to win after losing to the same opponents in the Senior Shield semi-finals 10 days earlier.
"They gave us a lot pressure, especially in the opening stages when they came close several times," said Yapp. "But I've played some tough games recently at both club and international level, so I'm in good form.
"Unfortunately, one point is not good enough in our battle to retain the league title."
The defending champions are four points behind rivals Kitchee, who lead the standings on 25 points and have one game in hand.
A header from striker Giovane da Silva and a Leung Tsz-chun free kick should have opened the scoring for Eastern in the first half had it not been for the reliable Yapp, who kept both chances out in front of a strong crowd of 3,000 on a sunny afternoon.
Da Silva also saw his shot from close range in the second half saved by the keeper, while a solo effort from veteran Yiu Hok-man went just inches wide.
"I am very proud of the boys," said Eastern coach Cristiano Cordeiro. "They were hungry for the victory after what we considered an unlucky defeat to South China in the Senior Shield."
South China's best chance came through a set piece when defender Chan Wai-ho headed a Michael Luk Chi-ho corner against the goalpost.
South China will face Sun Pegasus in the Senior Shield final on Sunday, but Yapp said they should not be judged by their performance against Eastern.
Meanwhile, bottom club Happy Valley's relegation woes deepened when they lost 5-0 to Sunray Cave Sun Hei at Tsing Yi Sports Ground.