League Cup: Young Lions clinch Queenstown comeback
Photography by Jaslin Tay
As they had done when the teams last met in the Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League earlier in the season, the Courts Young Lions proved too good for Tanjong Pagar United when they crossed swords in the StarHub Plate semifinals match at Queenstown Stadium on Monday evening.
Unlike the 5-0 rout in April, however, they had to settle for a come-from-behind 2-1 win this time, even though they certainly looked the part in the second half when, in a matter of minutes, they erased an eighth-minute deficit and turned the game around completely.
The Young Lions began brightly enough, with Jonathan Toto heading just wide from his captain Hafiz Abu Sujad’s seventh-minute cross, while a solid attack a minute earlier had seen a shot from Zulfahmi Arifin blocked on the Tanjong Pagar line.
It was to prove a fairly physical game, with the stretcher-bearers entering the pitch quite regularly to attend to players who had come off second best in some of the more meaty challenges, but it was far from being a dirty game, simply a fiercely competitive one.
Tanjong Pagar have not been enjoying the best of fortunes of late, but they usually are full of endeavour, and this was the case here as well.
Midfielder Takaya Kawanabe and Carlos Delgado were not as influential as may have been hoped, however, and their younger opponents managed to keep them quiet for much of the game.
Jaguars coach Terry Pathmanathan gave a start to Syed Karim, who has been sidelined with injury for much of the season, but he had to come off after 57 minutes, making way for the player who has often been deployed in his absence, 24-year-old Azhar Ahmad.
Haitian striker Gilbert Bayonne was probably the best of the home side’s foreign contingent, as he worked tirelessly to get things going up front, shouldering the burden alone for the most part.
At least he had help when it came to dead-ball situations, and it was from a corner swung over from the left by Delgado that the Jaguars took the lead after only eight minutes.
Bayonne, stationed at the far post, headed the ball back across goal, and defender Hafiz Osman, who came up for the play as usual, managed to slam the ball past Syazwan Buhari with unstoppable force.
Asraf Abdul Rashid was a constant presence on the flanks and kept the Young Lions defenders busy throughout, while for the visitors Benjamin Lee had a very strong game, even if Toto was doing more of the unsung work up front, shielding the ball from opponents and bringing others into the game.
Another to shine was Sirina Camara, who was playing in a central defensive role, yet had time to make many advances down the left flank, showing such abundant speed that he had the Tanjong Pagar defenders totally at his mercy.
Sherif El-Masri was his usual enterprising self, offering shots from close range twice in the opening half-hour, even if he was unable to find the target each time.
Bayonne, though, might have done better for the hosts five minutes before half-time when making a fast break on the right, but with his rushed shot from 20 yards going just wide, the chance to open up a two-goal lead went begging.
Zulfahmi meanwhile was one of the more dangerous Young Lions midfielders, never afraid to spray passes around or to test Jaguars custodian Shamsudin Hashim.
In first-half stoppage time he made a searching solo run, and his eventual shot was superbly tipped over the bar by Shamsudin, whose handling looked impeccable for most of the match.
But for all that hard work in the first half, Tanjong Pagar were to find an even more resolute Young Lions outfit in the second period.
A series of corners were won by the visitors during the opening ten minutes of the half, and the constant pressure appeared to be too much for the Jaguars, who could not find the rhythm they had enjoyed in the first half for quite some time.
It was to prove too long for them to soak up the pressure as they conceded twice in a little over a minute, due to some high-intensity approach work by their rivals.
After a few Young Lions corners had been won and dealt with, Zulfahmi remained out wide on the right and was able to feed Fazli Ayob a pass that the speedy striker delivered rapidly to the near post from the byline.
Nobody in the somewhat static Tanjong Pagar defence picked up the run through from rightback Faritz Abdul Hameed, who stabbed the ball home with glee despite the tight amount of room available to him, his goal-scoring instincts giving him the edge over some hesitant defenders.
Shell-shocked by that sharp riposte, the hosts failed to regroup quickly enough and succumbed a second time little more than a minute later.
Lee, who had run at the Jaguars defence willingly for much of the game, took off on a diagonal run that began on the left and then unleashed an unstoppable rising shot from 25 yards out that rocketed into the top right corner of the net to give his side a deserved lead.
That spell of ‘switching off’ undid all the Tanjong Pagar players’ hard work in the first half and made their task so much more difficult for the remainder of the game.
There was, however, one moment when the Young Lions appeared to lose their own concentration in a way that might have proven costly.
On 73 minutes, a long ball out of the Jaguars defence from Zahid Ahmad looked a regulation catch for Syazwan, but it proved trickier than expected, and the young goalkeeper dropped the ball in front of the lurking Bayonne.
Suddenly finding the ball at his feet, the tall striker looked up to see a gaping goal at his mercy, but somehow managed to screw the ball wide, to the anguish of teammates and fans alike.
Bayonne had another opportunity five minutes from time when he lunged at the far post to a cross from the left by Asraf, but he could only find the side-netting that time.
The last chance for the Jaguars came in stoppage time when substitute Jonathan Xu, who had come on for the injured Hafiz Nor to operate down the right flank, fired a last-gasp volley at close range, but the ball skimmed narrowly over the bar, much to his regret.
Young Lions coach Robin Chitrakar was pleased to see his side advance to the Plate Final that takes place at their Jalan Besar home on Friday.
“We played very well, and the boys worked their socks off tonight,” he said.
“Once again we conceded an early goal, and I wasn’t very happy about that, but the boys fought back strongly and it was a good performance.
“I know Balestier Khalsa, who we will be playing in the Final, will be a stronger side than Tanjong Pagar, but we should be ready for them.
“We’ll have Faris Ramli back for the Final. He was on the bench today, but we did not risk him, saving him for the Final instead.”
Pathmanathan was at a loss to explain his team’s capitulation.
“The Young Lions were much too good,” he said.
“We looked alright at training, as usual, but we never seem to be able to reproduce that in matches, and we keep making those same mistakes. We gave away too many cheap corners before they scored their goals, and that’s disappointing.
“Unfortunately I only have 16 players to work with, and some of the newer ones are proving to be of a lower standard as well, so I can’t make any meaningful substitutions, as I have no depth and there’s nobody I can send on to change the course of the game.
“I can only work with these same players before our next match and hope they can do better during the remaining matches (in the league).”