Late goals fire Balestier to top spot
Two goals in the last ten minutes enabled Balestier Khalsa to overcome some stubborn resistance from Woodlands Wellington in their Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League clash at Toa Payoh Stadium on Sunday.
South Korean striker Kim Min Ho and winger Ruhaizad Ismail netted in quick succession to send the Tigers to the top of the league standings and condemn their opponents to a third successive defeat after five rounds played.
The dismissal of first-half substitute Zulkiffli Hassim failed to dampen the spirits of the 1,913-strong partisan crowd, as the Tigers continued their fairytale league season under the stewardship of Australian head coach Darren Stewart.
Stewart made only one change to the eleven that defeated Hougang United 1-0 in their last match at Jalan Besar, forward Andrew Tan Wee Tat making his first start in the 2012 season at right midfield at the expense of the benched Zulkiffli.
His Woodlands counterpart Salim Moin, who was in the Balestier hot seat last season, kept faith with the same starting lineup despite them crashing 0-4 away to Tampines Rovers at Clementi in the previous round.
Significantly for the visiting team, four players – goalkeeper Ahmadulhaq Che Omar, rightback K. Sathiaraj, and midfielders Shamsurin Abdul Rahman and Armanizam Dolah – were up against the team they had served in 2011.
There were of course others in the Woodlands squad who had a Balestier connection, such as captain Daniel Hammond and wide forward Goh Swee Swee, but once the first whistle went off, it was the men currently wearing the home side’s red kit who had the brighter start.
The hosts wasted no time stamping their authority in all departments, and only the lack of finishing denied them the lead their overwhelming dominance in the first half deserved.
Tan provided their first opportunity on ten minutes when he was fed by Hamqaamal Shah outside the box. Ahmadulhaq had to be equal to his former teammate’s ferocious low effort as he clawed it away off the line.
A mistimed defensive tackle from the men in blue seven minutes later allowed Kim some time and space, but the Woodlands custodian rushed out and cleared the ball outside the box before further damage could be inflicted.
While Ahmadulhaq, together with his defence, was busy keeping the marauding Tigers at bay, his colleagues further up were content to sit back and hope for swift counterattacks through Goh and Korean forward Moon Soon Ho.
On the few occasions they penetrated into the Balestier half, they found themselves restricted to making hopeful long punts that never troubled goalkeeper Joey Sim all evening.
Midway through the first half, Park Kang Jin laid up for Syed Thaha to fire a quick low shot that whizzed just past Ahmadulhaq’s right.
That was to be the latter’s final contribution of the evening as he pulled his hamstring, forcing Stewart to send on Zulkiffli in his place.
The change was to prove fortuitous, as the Balestier No.12 consistently gave Sathiaraj a torrid time on the left with his pacy dribbles that would often see him cut into the box.
One such attempt just after the half-hour mark nearly reaped rewards, but Trinidadian defender Fabien Lewis did very well to intercept his goalbound shot.
Another try saw Zulkiffli create some space for himself inside the box, but his final touch was found wanting, leaving the one-sided affair goalless at half-time.
The hosts carried on where they left off after the break as they continued to lay siege in the Woodlands half. A low diagonal cut-cross from Park found Kim, who contrived to blaze his attempt from less than six yards.
Sensing all the pressure coming from one flank, Stewart threw Ruhaizad on in place of Tan, hoping he could repeat his supersub feat against stubborn opponents in past weeks.
Shots from Park, Kim and Zulkiffli peppered Ahmadulhaq’s goal for much of the second half, but none of them managed to hit the target.
Just as the game appeared to be heading towards a goalless stalemate, the hosts finally struck with ten minutes to go.
Kim took advantage of some generosity in space to unleash an unstoppable curler from outside the box that swerved all the way into the top corner to give the Tigers the lead.
Double joy for the Toa Payoh crowd came three minutes later, when Zulkiffli capitalised on confusion in the Woodlands backline to provide a cross for Ruhaizad to finish emphatically.
Zulkiffli turned villain in the dying minutes of the game when he was dismissed for instigating a melee after allegedly hurling racial verbal abuse at Lewis.
That failed to dampen the Tigers’ elation, however, as they rose to the league summit, something they had not achieved beyond the first two weeks since the S.League’s inaugural season in 1996.
Stewart paid tribute to his players and the passionate crowd after his side kept up their impressive unbeaten streak.
“It was an outstanding performance from the boys from start to finish,” beamed the Australian.
“The whole team played solidly, and we had to be very patient to wait for us to get a result. It is absolutely pleasing to see the boys smiling after the game and for us to keep another clean sheet.”
He was also pleased to see another solid turnout at Toa Payoh, which came close to the 2,000-strong mark after an impressive presence at the stands in their previous home game.
“While we did our part on the pitch, we also need to give credit to the three co-chairmen (S. Thavaneson, Balbeer Singh Mangat and Jagjit Singh), who have put in tremendous hard work to bring the crowd in,” added Stewart.
“After our opening home game, they were already planning for tonight with a series of meetings and coordinated immense efforts with community and commercial partners to keep them coming back for more. In fact, planning for the next home game begins tonight.”
The former Gombak United tactician cautioned against confirming them as potential title holders despite a solid start to the Tigers’ campaign.
“It is a good story so far for us to see us at the top, but it is still early days yet. We have only played five games into a long season,” he warned.
“If this is still the position we are in with five games remaining, then we can probably start thinking of the championship!”
Meanwhile it was back to the drawing board again for Salim and his Woodlands side, as they came to terms with their latest setback.
“The lapses in concentration cost us,” lamented assistant coach Clement Teo.
He cited the combination of a flu bug hitting the senior team and lack of preparation time that contributed to their third successive loss.
“Some of the players were down with flu during the week and could not train,” he explained.
“Coincidentally, the field at Woodlands was far from ideal owing to inclement weather, and we could only train there for two-and-a-half days as a result.
“The time we had to prepare was insufficient and we paid the price with the final result.”
Teo rebutted suggestions that the Rams used negative tactics in hope of leaving Toa Payoh with a point, after two previous defeats that undid their early bright start to the season.
“To say we are holding out for a point isn’t totally appropriate, but we couldn’t execute what we wanted to do,” he clarified.
“We had wanted to tighten the midfield to prevent Balestier from playing, but we dropped back way too deep and allowed them to play instead.
“It is a matter of how much we want it. We spoke to the boys after the game and told them they can give much more than their contribution tonight. They need more determination and a better attitude.”