They may have been beaten 2-1 by the strong Geylang International Prime League side at Clementi Stadium on Wednesday night, but an understrength Tampines Rovers’ Under-21 side could hold their heads high after a magnificent second-half which came after a sluggish start and two goals conceded to the Eagles in the opening 20 minutes.
The game was originally scheduled for the following night at Geylang’s temporary Prime League home, Woodlands Stadium, after their Bedok Stadium home was closed for the remainder of the season for much-needed athletics’ track repairs.
Tampines Rovers, beaten 2-0 in a bruising game against the NFA Under-18s four days earlier, which saw Syed Haziq stretchered off and ruled out of this game, having already been without influential midfielder, Zulfadhmi Suzliman, injured himself in the match before, lost 1-0 to an unfortunate own goal against Hougang United.
Here, and with Khairul Nizam also limited to a cameo role off the bench, similarly injury-inflicted, the weakened Stags’ side began the game with some uncertainty as Geylang rattled in their first goal after only 13 minutes and a second just six minutes later.
Thoughts turned to a potentially heavy defeat for the young Tampines’ team, but Dilwant Singh’s boys are made of sterner stuff.
Undaunted by the early setbacks the Stags showed that despite their missing team-mates, those left, well-led by American striker, Diego Silvas and the hard running of fellow front-runners, Faizal Raffi, fought back immediately to get on the scoreboard themselves only five minutes after going two down.
Sheikh Ibrahim made a withering run down the right and sent over a firm cross with Geylang defenders struggling to ward off the predatory Silvas and Faizal, who charged through the middle in support of their speedy winger.
In a goalmouth tussle Geylang defender, Sadiq Rahim, won the race to the ball, only to turn it into his own net, under pressure from the late-arriving Tampines’ pair.
The momentum gained from that goal carried forward into the second half which saw Diego Silvas smash a free-kick against the crossbar in the 55th minute.
With that close-call Geylang thought their counter-attack in the 67th minute might have led to a third goal, after referee Muhammad Syahir spotted a handball infringement inside the penalty-area. Tampines’ protests went unheeded, naturally, so it was up to keeper, Haikal Hasnol, to try and thwart the Eagles’ penalty-kick taker, Asshukrie Wahid.
Haikal was able to make the save by guessing correctly and diving to his right to push away the ball, struck low towards the bottom corner of the net.
It still looked as if Ifwat Ismail’s 13th minute header and Min Thi Ha’s 19th minute tap-in could yet lead to further goals by the fluent Geylang side.
But Tampines were having none of it and continued to take the game to their opponents.
Diego Silvas went close a couple of times from open play, following his earlier free-kick hitting the bar and the Tampines attack limited Geylang to the occasional counter-attack.
The Geylang keeper, Muhammad Nur Amin, had to be at the top of his game in the 79th minute as he was nearly brought undone by a magnificent Diego Silvas free-kick from distance, that looked to dip late under the crossbar, but the keeper just leapt in time to tip the effort over.
On one remaining raid, in the 83rd minute, Geylang’s opening goalscorer, Ifwat, ran onto a pass from Ashraf Razali, only for Haikal to pull off another big save to deny the Eagles’ man.
It had been a big fighting effort by Tampines who were thin in their ranks, with coach Dilwant happy to persevere with his starting eleven right up until the 86th minute when Haiqal Sulaiman, who’d suffered a knock, made way for Khairul Nizam, clearly far from 100 per cent himself.
The players remained on the field for at least 20 minutes, after the final whistle, to reflect on their sterling efforts along with a thoroughly-satisfied coaching contingent.