Home down Jaguars with last-gasp winner
Photography by Ko Po Hui
Home United got a first-hand reminder of how football could be a funny old game at times as they were made to earn three points the hard way against Tanjong Pagar United on Thursday evening.
Despite having five key players out through injury, including first-choice custodian Lionel Lewis, skipper Shi Jiayi and playmaker Qiu Li, the Protectors were still clear ahead of their opponents on the Bishan Stadium pitch, yet they found it extremely hard to make the breakthrough.
When they finally did, it was a minute after they had gone behind early in the second half, after the first half had seen them struggle to carve out decent openings.
And it took a Jeremy Chiang strike eight minutes into injury time to finally haul Home ahead, the closing whistle coming seconds later to seal a 2-1 victory against a Jaguars outfit all geared up for 90 minutes of rearguard action and a point to take home, only to be undone by that late blow.
It must be said, though, that for much of the evening that plan worked well for the men in black and gold.
Apart from plucking out a close-range header from Firdaus Idros eleven minutes in and surviving a scare when Kenji Arai’s scuffed volley on the half-hour mark hit the crossbar and went over, Shamsudin Hashim was enjoying a charmed life manning the sticks for Tanjong Pagar.
Song Ui Young’s free kick sailed over and Masrezwan Masturi volleyed wide, while Frederic Mendy had two separate opportunities crowded out by a sea of bodies in the box.
Ironically, it had to take conceding a goal to get the home side’s engine going.
Two minutes after the break, a hopeful Anthony Aymard free kick from just inside the Home half eluded everyone in the box before looping over the backtracking Nazri Sabri in goal, giving the Jaguars a lead that stunned even the most ardent of visiting fans.
But that goal only served to spur the home side on, as they levelled matters within seconds of the restart.
An intelligent ball played through by Song picked out an advancing Shotaro Ihata inside the box, and the Japanese duly fired an unerring finish into the bottom left corner from a tight angle.
If the Protectors thought that signalled the opening of the floodgates, however, they were left absolutely frustrated for the remainder of the match.
Firdaus volleyed wide soon after, Masrezwan had a one-on-one opportunity closed down, Jonathan Xu cleared off the line amid chaos caused by Rhysh Roshan Rai’s free kick, while Song’s effort just outside the box was pushed over by Shamsudin.
Those were just the opportunities that came before the hour mark; the probing continued for the final half-hour as well, seemingly to no avail.
Mendy’s attempt to clip the ball over Shamsudin did not come off, and both the Frenchman and substitute Indra Sahdan Daud fired free kicks wide as well.
Roshan’s corner late on was cleared to safety too, with Tanjong Pagar putting no fewer than nine shirts inside their box.
Fourth official W. Ravisanthiran’s indication of five minutes of added time promptly saw the Protectors surging forward, and they earned a penalty two minutes into the added period when Song was brought down by Aymard inside the box.
Ihata stepped up in search of his second goal of the game, but his shot lacked both the power and direction to fool Shamsudin as the latter collected the ball at the second attempt.
The shot-stopper went on to spend several minutes getting treatment for an unspecified injury, before coming off for former Home goalkeeper Fajar Sarib in a late change that Tanjong Pagar fans hoped would eat up a few more precious seconds.
Instead, referee Leow Thiam Hoe had the clock tick on to compensate for lost time, and that proved to be the last twist in this tale.
A half-cleared cross fell straight into the path of a lurking Chiang inside the six-yard box, and the fullback needed no invitation to volley the ball firmly past Fajar amid the many shirts cluttering the box.
The men in red promptly tore away to celebrate the late winner as most of the 1,531 in the stands cheered in jubilation.
Home coach Lee Lim Saeng was clearly delighted as he rushed to join his players just outside the technical area, and the final whistle came soon after to the dismay of the jaded Jaguars.
“I really appreciate my players for what they did today,” said Lee at the post-match press conference afterwards.
“We had a lot of injuries before the game, so I spoke to the rest. ‘You’re also a player, remember that you also can play,’ I told them.
“I wanted them to be confident, and I think they accepted that.”
The key to victory, according to the former Korea Republic international, lay in attacking down both flanks.
“In the first half, we didn’t break down both flanks, so I asked the midfielders why they wanted to send the ball to the centre where there was no space,” he revealed.
“I told them they can make chances as long as they attack the flanks. And that’s how we got our goals.”
Pathmanathan meanwhile could only speak in awe of Home’s squad depth as they excelled despite their key omissions.
“There’s a vast difference in level between both sets of players, and we have to accept reality,” he remarked.
“They may have a few players injured, but those who came in stood out well. I don’t even count them as second-stringers.
“Just look at the number of chances they created and the number we created. Although the scoreline was 0-0 in the first half, it flattered us.
“I thought we could probably cause an upset after we scored, but that lead was short-lived. After that, our defence seemed to be in sixes and sevens.
“It’s disappointing that we didn’t get a point, but I don’t want to take the credit away from Home. The hallmark of a good team is that when they go down, they come back.”