Reigning Prime League champions Home United may have beaten the Stags 4-2 earlier in the season at the Protectors’ own Bishan Stadium fortress, but the early pacesetters again this season were twice headed by the Tampines Rovers boys before clawing their way back to salvage a face-saving 2-2 draw at Jurong West Stadium on Saturday night.
The result allowed Geylang International to overtake the Protectors, who, Nevertheless, remain unbeaten and still have two games in hand on some of their main rivals.
Tampines Rovers showed that they had learned plenty from the first meeting of the two teams and thanks to steady improvement each week the young Stags were able to keep Home United on the back foot for much of the ninety minutes, with their tenacity and clever attacking moves, no doubt surprising a Protectors side that is used to being labelled nearly invincible.
It was significant that after pulling back to 1-1 before half-time Home’s veteran coach Bernard Lan had his players out on the pitch early following the break.
Even more noteworthy, after the final whistle, was the sight of their players making a quick exit to the sheds for a post-mortem, no doubt with the riot-act being read to his players by a seriously displeased Lan.
For Tampines there were nothing but positives to come out of the game.
With no senior S.League players on the team sheet, other than third-choice keeper and regular Prime League custodian Haikal Hasnol, Tampines fielded a very young and fast-learning bunch of players against a maturing opponent who included Serbian striker, Suto Marijan, at least in the second-half. The big foreign Prime League striker who came off the bench, is a player who’d contributed almost a full game for his S.League team 24 hours earlier in their 3-2 defeat at the hands of the jubilant Stags.
Suto was deployed as an out-and-out target-man and it was he who managed to put his side level for the second time midway through the second-half, with a free-kick, but who was also denied when attempting to put his side in front from the penalty-spot later in the match, thanks to a smart save from Haikal Hasnol.
It was noteworthy that Home United, a side renowned for finishing their games off more strongly than almost all of their opponents, had to resort to the bench several times in order to try and salvage some pride from the game.
Apart from throwing on Suto at half-time, Protectors’ coach Lan made further changes in the 55th, 66th and 78th, but all his team had to show for it was Suto’s expertly-delivered free-kick.
Tampines must be commended for pushing Home United all the way and once again it was a great team effort that earned them the valuable point.
The game was an entertaining one, with plenty of positive play from both sides, although it did become a little rugged at times with neither side giving an inch.
Home United fired a few early salvos, but couldn’t hit the target, Khairul Shari well wide in the eighth minute and Ridhuan Shamsuddin smashing his effort against the post in the tenth.
A nicely directed throw-in from the right by teenage defender Ryhan Stewart allowed Tampines’ front runner, Diego Silvas, to race to the by-line and under immense pressure from his marker get the ball across low to the goalmouth.
Haiqal Sulaiman, always a huge danger in the opponents’ penalty-area, got his head to the ball before any Home United defender could sense his presence and the ball fairly thundered into the top corner of the net to make it 1-0.
Khairul Nizam almost made it 2-0 in the 16th, but his volley from 20 yards was brilliantly tipped over the bar by a relieved Home United keeper, Kenji Syed Rusydi.
Home United rallied then and after Haikal Hasnol had saved well from Nikesh Singh Sidhu in the 20th minute, the visitors drew level three minutes later.
A cross from the right was not dealt with at all well and that left Arshad Shaiman free at the near post to tuck the ball into the net at close range.
Tampines continued to create chances, however, with Diego involved in many of them. He picked out Faizal Raffi in the 32nd but one-on-one with the keeper the latter could only deliver the ball into the custodian’s waiting arms.
In the 41st Diego fed the ball from the left via Faizal to a waiting Ryhan Stewart out wide on the right, but with the goal at his mercy the defender rushed his shot from a clearly unfamiliar forward position and sent the ball well wide of the goal.
Home United might have taken an undeserved lead on the strike of half-time, but they blasted well wide themselves to bring an exciting first-half to a close.
Tampines regained the lead in the 52nd, precipitating at least two premature substitutions by a harried Home United bench.
After a corner on the right from stand-in skipper Aide Shazwandi, the ball arrived on the left for Zulfadhmi Suzliman to send back across goal where it was beautifully headed home by Faizal.
The Stags were far from finished and showed no fear of their opponents’ reputation for superior fitness. Yet after several big runs into the Protectors’ half which proved unrewarding, it was Home United who managed to score next.
They won a free-kick in the middle on the edge of the penalty area and Suto was able to send his shot over the wall and into the roof of Haikal’s net.
In the 77th minute with Tampines defending strongly there appeared to be no contact as Haikal raced out to greet the on-rushing Home United man chasing a through ball from deep, but referee, Chan Kwok Wai, felt otherwise and pointed to the spot.
Up stepped Suto again and Tampines’ hearts were in mouths as the big Serbian striker lined up his conversion attempt.
But Haikal proved the hero for the Stags as he guessed correctly and dived to his right to deflect the shot away. He then produced a second reflex save to deny another Home United player the glory from the rebound.
This was a hard-earned, yet well-deserved win by the young Tampines team.
Their coach, Dilwant Singh agreed.
“They’re improving week-by-week and this team will be very good indeed next season, as they’re still learning,” he said.
“This is a work in progress and I’m very pleased with how they’re doing in the short time I’ve been here,” he went on.
The Tampines Rovers Prime League side is shaping up well and will be in action once again at the same Jurong West venue on Tuesday 23rd May when they meet, Warriors FC, kick-off 7:45pm.
The Warriors won the first encounter 3-0 at Choa Chu Kang Stadium back in March, but the Stags will be ready for them this time.