In the end it wasn’t enough to topple Prime League leaders Hougang United at Jurong West Stadium on Tuesday night, but Tampines Rovers certainly made life hard for the unbeaten Cheetahs before going down in a thriller, 2-1.
Quicker to every ball in the first half that saw Dilwant Singh’s boys forge to a deserved 26th minute lead, Tampines found their opponents just that little bit sharper in a battling second-half when their cause was not aided by a 65th minute red card for midfielder, Danish Uwais, who’d been cautioned early in the first half and then incurred the ire of referee, Nazree Hussain, a second time with a late tackle as Hougang went looking for a winner as the match hung in the balance at 1-1.
Coach Dilwant is only a few weeks into his job, but is aware of steady progress being made by the team, this game, for example, beginning in very positive fashion.
With three wins and one draw behind them going into this game Hougang United, coached by Robin Chitrakar and with the club’s S.League coach Philippe Aw taking a keen interest from the stands, were expected to give Tampines their toughest test to date.
After all, they’d scored 14 goals in their four outings, but that didn’t intimidate Tampines who barely gave them an inch to move before the break.
The Stags’ recent S.League team contributor, Zulfadhmi Suzliman, whose late introduction led to the team’s fourth goal in their latest 4-0 win over Geylang International, was not shot-shy here, heading just over in the third minute from Khairul Nizam’s excellent cross and then going close with a long-range effort that barely cleared the crossbar, two minutes later.
Then, trying something similar, Syed Haziq had Hougang keeper, Ahmad Fadly, almost spilling his powerful shot before, perhaps somewhat hastily, smashing a shot that crashed off the bar in the 17th minute after Diego Silvas had cut the ball back in his path, quite perfectly.
Then, from a free-kick on the right, dispatched crisply by Zulfadhmi in the 23rd, gleeful Tampines players converged on the ball in a packed Hougang goalmouth, with Diego stabbing home from close range to put the Stags in front.
They’d worked hard for every ball and looked decidedly the better side in a gripping first-half and the big question was whether the Stags could maintain that positive momentum.
Appeals for a penalty went unheeded in the 32nd when Haziq charged through to meet the keeper, coming down in a clumsy challenge, but the referee was not interested.
Hougang’s best chance of the half came in the 34th when Gareth Low fired wide as home players and fans breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Prior to this game Hougang’s Syukri Bashir had nabbed five goals and he’d been kept relatively quiet in this game, thanks to a vigilant Stags’ defence that limited his opportunities.
Hougang were back on the field before the referees had knocked on their dressing room door and they obviously saw no point remaining there, after hearing some strong words from their coach during the break.
Hougang had a goal disallowed within minutes of the restart for offside, but it was very evident that they meant business, as they set about restoring parity in the fiercely combative game.
Intense pressure, with the Tampines’ defence fully stretched, saw the Cheetahs draw level in the 58th, with Syukri unstoppable as he netted from close range.
After that it was backs-to-the wall for Tampines who deployed Diego up front and left the others to try and contain a rampant Hougang.
The Stags appeared to be holding on well enough, before losing Danish to a red card, but coach Dilwant had already seen enough from his S.League youngster, Haziq, electing to put on Rafiq Tajudin instead, in the 56th minute.
Tampines’ goalkeeper, Haikal Hasnol, had an otherwise decent game, but he won’t be too pleased with himself after Hougang forged to the lead in the 74th minute on the strength of a long-range, speculative shot that he appeared to have covered, but inexplicably proved too powerful to hold onto, as the ball slipped through his outstretched fingers.
Seven minutes from time Diego got away on the left and reached the byline before pulling the ball back, but no Tampines players were close enough to latch onto it, a defender almost putting the ball into his own net before the keeper made a save,
Two minutes into stoppage-time and the Stags almost rescued a deserved point, but unfortunately Khairul Nizam’s shot from six yards was not strong enough to trouble the alert Hougang keeper.
It was a good all-round performance by a side that’s steadily improving and showing plenty of mettle.
They’ll need to sustain that hunger and application for a full 90 minutes against future opponents as a strong first-half only took them half-way here.
Hougang are. of course, riding high with four wins and a draw now, but Tampines can win again soon, after collecting just four points to date from their five outings.
Their next engagement is at Bedok Stadium on Tuesday 18th April with the Eagles beaten only once so far, but being nowhere near as prolific as Hougang with only eight goals to their name, compared to the Cheetahs’ sixteen.