Boom team Home United were brought crashing back down to earth on Friday night by old rivals Tampines Rovers at Jalan Besar Stadium, as the Stags came storming back after going a goal down early in the game to record a morale-boosting 3-2 win over the Protectors, who had gone into the game unbeaten.
With Home United having progressed to the kick-out rounds of the AFC Cup and Tampines having been eliminated after a disappointing loss to Ceres Negros on this same Jalan Besar Stadium surface ten days earlier, the early goal could have disheartened many another team, but the Stags are clearly made of sterner stuff.
They bounced back magnificently, responding far more positively than they had against their AFC Cup opponents, levelling the scores quickly and racing to a 3-1 lead well before half-time.
And unlike the Ceres match the Tampines team remained intact, not losing any player to a red card, despite some hefty challenges in a no-holds-barred first-half contest.
Home United did manage to bring the score back to 3-2 in favour of the Stags, but they could not manage a third goal themselves on this occasion.
Coach Juergen Raab made two significant changes in the starting line-up that he’d deployed against the Stags’ opponents from the Philippines.
He had Khairul Amri on from the start ahead of Ivan Dzoni and brought in Ismadi Mukhtar for Jufri Taha, the changes bringing some variation in style to the way the team had played against Ceres.
Things didn’t look too rosy, however, after only 13 minutes when Home United’s budding youngster, Amiruldin Asraf, latched onto a perfectly-weighted through-pass from Song Uiyoung to finish with ease.
This time Tampines responded positively and resolutely and refused to be pressured by that early breakthrough by their opponents.
In stark contrast to the AFC Cup match the Stags went about their business in polished style and went on the offensive immediately. Amri powered a header just over the crossbar in the 16th minute and then Tampines forced a number of corners as Home United struggled to deal with the attacking threat posed by both Ismadi and Ryutaro Megumi on the flanks.
A corner from the right, swung over as always by Shahdan Sulaiman in the 31st minute yielded the equaliser. The ball reached Amri just outside the six yard area and with Home United keeper Hassan Sunny possibly unable to get a clear look at the marksman as he took aim through a sea of defenders’ legs, the talismanic striker was able to rifle the ball into the net, forcefully and low, with no Protectors’ player able to impede the ball’s progress.
Lifted by this leveller, Tampines continued to test the resilience of the Home United defence, again forcing several corners as the first half wound down.
In the 40th minute, Ismadi showed all the trickery on the right flank that had earned him a national team call-up not so long ago and got past his man to the byline where he delivered a sizzling low cross.
The ball may have been intended for Amri positioned close to the middle and a few yards out, but he was unable to meet it and it fell, instead, to Shakir Hamzah at the edge of the six yard box. Shakir unleashed an unstoppable volley that fairly rocketed into the roof of the Home United net to have the Stags 2-1 up, with five minutes remaining until half-time, an ideal situation to be in.
But it was only to get better as Home United were forced to clear the ball off their line for a corner in the 45th minute and that resultant flag-kick again proved productive.
Shahdan got the ball over nicely to the near post and seasoned defender, Daniel Bennett, was there to meet it with a crisp header that nestled firmly in the top right corner of the net to have Tampines on great terms with themselves at 3-1 heading to the sheds.
It was Daniel’s first goal for the club and his first S.League strike in a while and it was certainly a quite unusual way for the Singapore international to score, as he’s more likely to come up for corners and arrive among a sea of defenders in the middle, rather than getting his head in first at the near stick.
Tampines held their nerve to go on and win the game 3-2, attacking with relish in the second-half as well, with Megumi well to the fore as usual, but Home had made some adjustments and were bent on regaining lost ground.
They met stiff resistance, though, from a well-drilled Tampines back-line and a steady, steely midfield.
Eventually they found a way through, again a through-ball releasing Amiruldin Asraf, whose near-post finish to a supply from deep by Protectors’ defender, Abdil Qaiyyim, had set the ultimate scorer free.
There were some nervous moments for stand-in keeper, Joey Sim, after the Stags’ had conceded that second goal in the 82nd minute, but again stout defending and iron resolve ensured that the 3-2 result was safe and the three points were secure.
The win not only ended the unbeaten run of Home United, the more favoured of the local teams to unseat reigning champions, Albirex Niigata (S), but victory here took Tampines up to second-spot, one ahead of their opponents in this match.
The Stags are now only four points behind the White Swans and physically in good shape, as players begin to return from injury, to tackle Albirex in the second round, a game that will be eagerly anticipated by all fans of Singapore football, Tampines Rovers’ ones especially.
Coach Juergen was a delighted man as he faced the media post-match, praising his players for their response and positive approach after going a goal down.
The absence of injured keeper, Izwan Mahbud, as well as long-term casualty Fazrul Nawaz and the other still-recovering absentees, Imran Sahib and Irwan Shah, was well-covered-for in this outing and the coach was even afforded the luxury of saving Madhu Mohana for a cameo appearance off the bench in stoppage-time.
A victory over old foes Home United is always to be savoured and especially when it allows the team to leapfrog their opponents and send a strong message to their rival clubs that Tampines Rovers are very much back in business again as the first round of eight matches reached its conclusion with this solid win.