Tampines comfortable in defeating Protectors
Goals from Aleksandar Duric and substitute Ahmed Fahmie either side of half-time were enough for Tampines Rovers to take all three points against league leaders Home United at Jalan Besar Stadium on Thursday evening.
It was Home’s first defeat of the season after starting the league campaign with three draws followed by three wins.
At least the Protectors were not immediately dethroned from top spot, but with the victory, Tampines now find themselves level on points with four other clubs jostling for second place.
And with the other three all waiting for their turn to play this week, Home could find themselves sliding as low as fourth by the time they return from their AFC Cup sojourn in Yangon next week.
In fact, the RHB Singapore Cup title holders had moments of dominance against the team that beat them to the S.League title last year, but in the end Tampines proved comfortable in holding on for the 2-0 result.
“I’m definitely happy for the boys,” said Stags head coach Steven Tan when it was all over.
“I think they showed the hunger tonight. They wanted to win and stuck to the plan.
“My defence worked very hard as a team and did really well. We knew the ball would be pumped to (Frederic) Mendy, and so we pushed a bit high, so the goalkeeper can come collect the crosses.
“The players feel like they got something off their chest, and are relieved that we scored two goals after struggling in the past two games. Hopefully we can build up for the coming matches.”
Home made a few changes from the side that beat Albirex Niigata (Singapore) over the weekend, with Kenji Arai’s inclusion in the starting lineup the one that stood out most after the Japanese recovered from a knee injury.
All four of their ‘fearsome foursome’ up front stayed, however, as Protectors fans hoped to see Tampines fall as so many others have fallen at the hands of these accomplished attackers.
But this was not a match that had a lightning start, as both teams took their time to get into the swing of things.
It was the men in yellow who crafted the first few chances of note, Ismadi Mukhtar cutting in from the left to unleash a shot that was comfortably held by Lionel Lewis, before Duric saw his shot on the turn blocked eleven minutes in.
Four minutes later, Fahrudin Mustafic pulled a strike from 35 yards out that was saved by Lewis once again, and Home felt the need to respond to the pressure.
It did not take long for them to do so, Shotaro Ihata dragging his shot wide from the right before Indra Sahdan’s effort from outside the area following a good interception by Jeremy Chiang was held well by Sasa Dreven.
They began to string more passes together, and with each passing minute, they looked like the team likelier to score the opener as they held on to possession and probed for ways to break Tampines down at the back.
As they kept trying, though, the Stags claimed the lead against the run of play eight minutes before the interval.
A hopeful long punt up the field was not dealt with by the defence, ironically anchored by midfielder Shi Jiayi, and the second ball was headed by Davor Piskor into the path of the onrushing Duric.
The veteran striker, with only Lewis to beat, made no mistake as he poked the ball home from around the edge of the penalty area.
John Wilkinson almost provided the perfect reply for the Protectors when his free kick from the left beat the young Dreven, but unfortunately, the goalpost got in the way as Tampines took a 1-0 lead into the break.
The start of the second half was a good one for the Clementi-based club, as they almost doubled their lead when Sazali Salleh sent Duric through on goal.
However, Arai did well to recover and did just enough to prod the ball out for a harmless corner.
Still the pressure kept coming from Tampines, and on 49 minutes Gligor Gligorov’s rocket from 40 yards out looked destined for the back of the net but for a flying save by Lewis that deflected the ball onto the crossbar.
Home again began to grow in confidence as the half wore on, and they did everything they could think of to seek the equaliser.
Wilkinson shot just wide of the post from outside the area, before Arai struggled to get a clean connection to Shi’s cross on 76 minutes.
Crosses were flying into the Tampines box rapidly, but the defence held firm, Benoit Croissant putting in a particularly noteworthy performance at the heart of the backline.
With the Protectors increasingly pushing men forward, gaping holes began to appear at the back, and that was the cue for Tampines to get their second goal.
A quick counterattack on 83 minutes resulted in Piskor sending the ball through to Fahmie, who had come on for Sazali, and the forward took a couple of touches before planting it firmly into the back of the net.
With a two-goal lead in hand, Tampines could afford to breathe easy, more so as Home were reduced to a couple of harmless shots that did not trouble Dreven at all.
A distraught Lee Lim Saeng sent his assistant Baek Jong Seok to represent the Protectors at the post-match press conference, and the latter pointed to the players’ fitness inadequacies as the area most obviously lacking in this match.
“We’ve played seven matches in four weeks,” said the Korean.
“The fitness of the players has been going down, as the time for recovery has not been enough. That is what is lacking now.
“Mentally, the players are doing fine. They tried their best to follow the plan.
“We were the more aggressive team in the first half, but Tampines were very compact and we could not beat them unfortunately. And then when they went on the attack, they scored.”