League Cup: Heated epic sees Stags edge through
Photography courtesy of Albirex Niigata (Singapore)
Tampines Rovers progressed to the semifinals of the StarHub League Cup competition after eliminating recent foes and title incumbents Albirex Niigata (Singapore) in an epic battle at Clementi Stadium that went deep into Sunday evening.
The Stags triumphed after a game that produced six goals, including two in extra time, before the issue was finally settled via the penalty spot.
In so many ways this game deserved to be seen by far more than the 393 who turned up, and it was noticeable that nobody in the increasingly noisy crowd left before the end, as the tension built and the entertainment value increased by the minute.
After both teams had successfully converted their five penalty kicks, the last of which was taken by their respective captains, Tampines, who took the first kick of the series, chose goalkeeper Sasa Dreven to take the awkward sixth attempt, the first in sudden death.
There was more behind that decision than mere eccentricity, as Stags coach Steven Tan revealed once it was all over.
“I told Sasa he had to take the sixth kick to redeem himself for one major blunder when we conceded the second goal (near the start of the second half),” said the former Tampines winger.
“He knew what he had to do, and then he made the save from their final kick to take us through, adding a touch of heroism to his keeper’s antics. So he is forgiven now for that earlier lapse!”
All said, Tampines may have been fortunate to escape with a 3-3 draw after falling behind three times during the game.
Their last free kick in the final minute of extra time, which led to the third and final equaliser, was tinged with controversy and brought a measured response from the White Swans coach Koichi Sugiyama, but a stronger note of displeasure from their team manager Koh Mui Tee.
“I don’t think it was a free kick,” said Sugiyama after being asked how his team had allowed Tampines to come back and snatch a draw so late in the contest, when they had already surrendered the lead twice during the game.
“Not only was it not a free kick,” added Koh, “but a number of decisions by the referee, including this soft one, seemed to be influenced by the comments of some of the Tampines team’s national team members, which tended to hurt us at various vital stages of the game.”
Koh was determined to ensure that his feelings and those of his club were aired, and as his coach had already touched upon the disputed free kick, he was anxious to go further in describing as ‘soft’ that last-minute decision, as well as a number of others during the fixture.
His passionate remarks certainly reflected the high drama of the match itself, even if it did begin quite tamely and only sprang to life after the first 45 minutes were over.
Albirex raced to the lead on 37 minutes after a deep cross from the left by Takeshi Ito was firmly headed back across the field to the middle of the goalmouth by Masatake Sato.
Yasuhiro Yamakoshi dummied cleverly, and Sho Kamimura, who was outstanding all night, lashed the ball home from twelve yards out to put his side in front.
But Tampines are always dangerous when falling behind, and they took a matter of only two minutes to regain parity.
Aleksandar Duric had a shot blocked at the near post, and moments later Anaz Hadee whipped over a nice cross from the right, and a looping header from Sead Hadzibulic deceived Takuma Ito in the Albirex goal, to the joy of the home fans.
Although the crowd on hand was small, those present were getting behind both teams with the same passion the players themselves were showing, and the atmosphere and entertainment value was increasing all the while, giving this League Cup competition some added lustre.
Despite a cautious start to the second half, which very much mirrored the first, Albirex were looking more than capable of restoring their lead, and they duly did so on 65 minutes.
Kamimura again was the scorer from just inside the penalty area with a decent volley, but it was Dreven’s decision to dive early and his failure to get behind the ball properly that made the White Swans man’s task that much easier.
It looked a major mistake from the stands, and Tan’s post-match comments practically affirmed it.
But Tampines are made of stern stuff, and even when behind a second time, they would certainly strive to draw level after that setback.
Captain and leading marksman Duric was roaming deep and wide, at least until Tan sent Noh Alam Shah on with the clock showing 69 minutes, at which point the 41-year-old dropped ever deeper in a support role.
Shortly before that, though, he had been denied by the alert Ito, who raced out to steal the ball away before the Tampines man could get his shot in.
From a corner by Sato on 72 minutes, Kamimura, who was 15 yards out and right in front, drove fiercely towards goal with Dreven diving desperately to try and block the effort, seeing the ball crash against the underside of his crossbar and then back into his grateful arms.
A rapid-fire move down the left by Tampines, with Alam Shah heavily involved and Jamil Ali prominent on the left, allowed the home side to draw level a second time moments afterwards, Gligor Gligorov stabbing the ball home from close range.
Alam Shah looked like he might give Tampines the lead a minute later, after receiving a nice through pass from Duric on the right, but the prodigal striker saw his attempt deflect into the side netting as Albirex closed him down tightly.
Six minutes before the end of regulation, a typically hard-running Jamil made another of his characteristic runs down the left, finding Alam Shah, who laid the ball off to Ahmad Latiff Khamarudin, only for Ito to pull a very good save.
Dreven, for his part, did well enough himself to deny Yamakoshi on 78 minutes, thus preventing Albirex from pulling two goals clear.
The action continued unabated, with a towering Duric header flashing just wide of the left-hand upright on 85, and Hadzibulic seeing his powerful shot on 90 saved well again by the Albirex goalkeeper.
The marauding Gligorov then had the time to deliver a shot of his own in the follow-up from 15 yards out on the right, but his swerving effort just cleared the bar, much to the relief of the Albirex defenders, and extra time was then needed to split the two top-drawer teams.
Atsushi Shimono, who was playing in a much more advanced role than usual in this game, was able to make it 3-2 to the White Swans on 96 minutes with a very tidy finish, with Takeshi Ito and Kamimura having big hands in the buildup.
Yet as always Tampines would prove troublesome opponents, never throwing in the towel, with even Fahrudin Mustafic pushing on despite seeming to suffer from a dead leg.
In the end, they finished the game off with more energy than they could reasonably have been expected to find.
With only three minutes left to save themselves, Imran Sahib crossed smartly for Latiff, whose header was only narrowly off target.
But Latiff it was who was able to slam the ball through a sea of legs in the very last minute of extra time, after Gligorov had hit the post with the disputed free kick from just outside the box and substitute Ahmed Fahmie’s follow-up attempt had been pushed away.
Tampines had numbers in the penalty area and Latiff was one of those, his rasping drive too good for Ito as the ball rocketed into the net.
And so even as the hour hand ticked well past eleven, the crowd stayed on to witness the drama of the penalty shootout, with the Stags the ones to get it going.
Alam Shah, given the responsibility to start things off, did not disappoint, while White Swans striker Yamakoshi was similarly clinical in finding the net.
After Gligorov, Hadzibulic, Fahmie and Duric had all converted for the Stags and Kamimura, Takeshi Ito, Shuhei Hotta and Norihiro Kawakami had been equally deadly for Albirex, it came down to the fateful sixth attempt.
Thus Dreven came to prove his worth, after a relatively indifferent game, by planting his shot perfectly past Takuma Ito.
When it came to the turn of White Swans substitute Hidekazu Yamamoto, Dreven at last proved the destroyer of dreams with a top save as he dived to his right to push the ball around the post.
“We never gave up and Albirex made us work very hard,” said Tan soon after, very much a relieved man.
“Both sets of players were very tired, but we summoned another effort in extra time, so the boys must be commended for their hard work, especially during the fasting month and after so many games played so close together.
“I really don’t think we should be playing extra time during the fasting month, as it is asking a lot of the players,” he ventured.
Sugiyama meanwhile tried to put a brave face on for the media, but was clearly shattered.
“My players gave it everything, I cannot fault them, and I must congratulate Tampines for winning this game tonight,” he said bravely.
Albirex are now reduced to the role of spectators, as Tampines now face Geylang United in the second semifinals clash on Wednesday, while DPMM FC of Brunei, the only semifinalists who have past experience winning this trophy, face SAFFC on Tuesday.
The hectic schedule was one that Tan expected everyone to have problems with.
“There’s not a lot of time to recover,” he said, noting that he had Ismadi Mukhtar still out with an ankle injury that would see him available for the final at best – should the Stags qualify.
“The other semifinal is played a day earlier than ours, so the winners of that one will have more rest before the final, but we have to make the best of it after this hard game tonight.”
As noisy fans from Albirex and Tampines began to filter their way out of Clementi, it was a shame to note that this encounter had not been the final instead, because it was a great showpiece for Singapore football.
Yet football enthusiasts who have taken the time to watch teams other than these League Cup participants would do well to give them another chance, as Tampines continue to feed their dreams of treble success.