‘Magnificent’ Tigers stun Tampines with late goal
A new-look Balestier Khalsa side triumphed in Thursday evening’s televised Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League encounter with reigning champions Tampines Rovers at Jalan Besar Stadium, a 1-0 win providing the Tigers with their first S.League game success over the Stags since 2007.
Their last home triumph over their old rivals goes even further back – in 2005 a 2-0 win at Toa Payoh thrilled the fans – and there was plenty for the travelling Balestier supporters to rejoice about on this occasion too.
The Tigers had outplayed Tampines in the first half, and as the champions moved into another gear following the half-time break, the men in red remarkably reciprocated, scoring the only goal of the game with just five minutes remaining.
They then saw out a torrid final nine minutes, including four for stoppages, with a non-stop work rate that had the club’s new coach Darren Stewart purring with delight.
“The boys were magnificent tonight,” said the Australian.
“Once we took the lead there was not one player out there who was going to let that slip.
“Sure, Tampines drew on their reserves of strength and determination, but we matched them all the way and it was our way of thanking the chairman and his two vice-chairmen for the support they have given us, including our pre-season tour of Malaysia, which helped us build up our confidence.”
Tampines, according to their own coach Steven Tan, were ‘sluggish’ and ‘didn’t turn up today’.
Maybe it was fatigue from the travelling to Brunei and back, or maybe it was the short period of rest since returning, but either way Tan was only able to offer congratulations to the Tigers and remark that the season had only just started.
With other top sides like Home United and SAFFC dropping points in the opening week, the loss of three points may not be such a setback for the Stags, even as they were still missing playmaker Ahmad Latiff Khamarudin, who is yet to pass his fitness test.
But credit must go to Balestier, who in winning produced some fine, flowing football, and it did not look like the same team that had struggled for long periods last season – and justifiably so.
Half the team Stewart had brought in came from his former club Gombak United, while other new recruits included players from Geylang United, SAFFC and even Korean football.
From the opening whistle, Balestier looked the more stylish of the two teams and the ones most anxious to go forward.
Even when no goals had been scored, inspirational captain Paul Cunningham was unafraid to go forward from his central defensive position and add some weight to the attack, going close to scoring on several occasions too.
Park Kang Jin, dominant in midfield alongside one-time Singapore international Tengku Mushadad, took only 40 seconds to line up a shot that had the Stags’ Croatian goalkeeper Sasa Dreven scrambling to dive low and effect an early save.
Cunningham took four minutes more to line up a free kick after Korean youngster Kim Min Ho had been brought down by a defender on the left 25 yards out.
The New Zealander may have driven the ball over the bar that time, but he was to go a lot closer on ensuing occasions as the game warmed right up.
A header from Kim was blocked by the Tampines defence after a sublime corner from the left by Tengku with eleven minutes played.
Meanwhile, the Stags were struggling to get into the game, although anchor Fahrudin Mustafic was always dominant around his own penalty area and a lethal weapon when going forward with his dead-ball strength and his incisive running.
For the most part, though, even Mustafic was outshone by his opposite number.
Cunningham made a huge run from deep on 20 minutes, finding the lurking Hamqaamal Shah out wide. The cross came in after some jockeying with a Tampines defender by the latter, but nobody was able to get there before the extra alert Dreven in the end.
Dreven had to be at his best again on 33 after a clever ball over the top from Tengku found Hamqaamal in some space and bearing down on goal. The goalkeeper timed things perfectly, however, not allowing the Balestier man to get to the loose ball before him.
For Cunningham it was not enough to make 60-yard runs, and he offered a 60 yard shot on 34 minutes, having spotted Dreven straying off his line, but the ball, which was perfectly on target, was claimed under the crossbar by the giant custodian.
At the other end Tampines were creating few chances, though lone front-man Aleksandar Duric managed to get a couple of headers in, one glanced towards goal that Joey Sim pushed away on 39 and another that the Stags captain headed over four minutes later.
Sim had excelled moments before when Davor Piskor, somewhat subdued on this occasion, shot from just inside the area with little power, allowing the Balestier goalkeeper to dive to his left and push the ball onto the upright.
The ball then flew across goal from the deflection off the woodwork before being cleared to safety.
That was perhaps the closest the Stags came to scoring.
At the other end Cunningham, this time from another Tengku free kick, saw his firm header narrowly clear the bar as the first half drew to a close.
There were good chances for the Tigers in the second half, with newcomer Kim, Goran Subara and Park all going close, but the threat from Tampines offered by Jamil Ali, Duric and Piskor fizzled out.
Tan felt that both his two outfield foreigners, Piskor and Gligor Gligorov, were tiring, and he responded by sending on Ahmed Fahmie and Sazali Salleh, though to no avail.
Balestier also replaced men with tired legs or in one case an injury, with Hamqaamal making way for Ruhaizad Ismail and Zulkiffli Hassim withdrawn for the speedy Andrew Tan.
Striker Patrick Paranjody also came on later for Kim as Stewart elected to go for broke, with the scoresheet still blank after 82 minutes.
All three substitutes worked hard, and one of them nabbed the winner with five minutes left on the clock.
Springing the offside ploy to perfection by holding his run from the right until the last split-second, Ruhaizad got through on the right flank to reach Subara’s superbly-weighted pass and steer the ball from an angle past the exposed Dreven.
Hard work preserving that lead then followed, but Balestier had been good value for the 1-0, and there was no way they would surrender.
Ruhaizad, even nine minutes before he had scored, featured in a couple of moves that could easily have yielded goals.
On 76 minutes he made a long run chasing a ball from very deep, and Dreven only just got there in time to dribble the ball clear after racing off his line as the last man.
Ruhaizad also steered an angled shot narrowly wide a minute before he went on to score the only goal of the game.
It was a very good day at the office for Balestier, who were unquestionably the better team on the night and thoroughly deserving of their 1-0 win.
But as Stewart said, Tampines will bounce back, so his team will not be getting too carried away, even as they savoured this rare victory over an old rival.