We came into this game against Hougang United knowing the circumstances. Win, and we move further ahead of Tanjong Pagar United in the race for 3rd Place. Lose, and the Jaguars would have a chance today against Geylang to cut our lead to 2 points, leading into our clash in the season’s final Matchday. Having won 4 of the last 5 games, we were the side coming into this match in better form, however we did lose our last 2 meetings against the Cheetahs, both by 4-2 scorelines.
Head Coach Gavin Lee stuck to almost the same lineup from last week’s Eastern Derby, with two changes in the shape of Captain Yasir Hanapi returning from suspension in place of Zehrudin ‘Zeko’ Memedovic, and Firdaus Kasman starting in place of Ong Yu En.
In his pre-match interview, Coach Gavin emphasized on dealing with the dangerous counter-attacking prowess of Hougang and preventing those situations. Speaking on our poor run of results against the Cheetahs, he explained that getting the job done in terms of qualification for the AFC Cup should instead be the main focus. A win here would definitely put us in prime position for that, in what would be a great end to the season.
The Home team kicked off and looked to gain the upper hand straight away, winning a corner in the first minute. Despite the fast start, it was Our Stags that nearly opened the scoring in the 5th minute, through a swift counter attack of our own led by Syed Firdaus Hassan. His drive into the midfield led to a great through ball to Boris Kopitovic, however the Montenegrin’s shot was weak and straight at Mukundan Maran on this occasion.
At the other end of the field, Stags custodian Syazwan Buhari would then be called upon in the 9th minute to make a brilliant double save from a barrage of Amy Recha shots, after Pedro intercepted Ryaan Sanizal’s back pass before cutting it back into Amy’s path. The pendulum looked to be swinging in Hougang’s favour, but we would not let this game get away from our hands. Once again, the energetic Syed Firdaus would start the move, as he once again drove through the midfield before finding Yasir Hanapi. His resulting pass found Taufik Suparno in acres of space, but his shot was saved by Mukun. He was not to be denied just a minute later.
Kyoga Nakamura spotted Irfan Najeeb on the right flank and located him with a pinpoint ball. Irfan’s cross into the area would find Yasir, who showed the presence of mind to nod it down for an onrushing Taufik. His first shot would be blocked by Anders Aplin, but the rebound fell back into his path, and he made no mistake for his 11th goal of the season. 0-1.
It would get even better for us just two minutes later, when Boris was adjudged to have been brought down in the box by Nazhiim Harman, leading to a penalty and a straight red card for the Hougang defender. Boris stepped up, but saw his penalty parried by Mukun. The save, though, went straight into the path of Taufik who was on hand to gleefully knock it home for his second of the game. A quickfire brace, and it was 0-2 to us.
Two goals and a man up, we then took firm control of the game, and nearly got ourselves a third on the 30th minute. Kyoga provided a masterful reverse pass to Taufik who would run it to the byline in search of his hat-trick. He selflessly provided a cut-back for Boris to tap in, but in a rare sighting, he would fluff his lines.
Just when we were looking to compound Hougang’s misery, they started to look menacing once again. Krisitjan Krajcek pressured Firdaus Kasman to regain possession, and his shot from outside the box was saved by Syazwan. The ball ended up at the feet of Pedro, but his shot was brilliantly saved by the feet of our keeper. They would, however, get rewarded for this wave of attacking moves 7 minutes later, when Andre Moritz volleyed home after great wing play by Krajcek again. 1-2.
Having missed a penalty and an open goal, it looked to be a bad day at the office for Boris. The bright side of this was that he was always looking for the space and finding chances - a trait of all good strikers, and just when the Cheetahs looked to get their fangs back into the game, ‘Big Bad’ Boris finally had his say.
Kyoga was involved in all of our good possession play this game, and it was no surprise that he was once again involved in the build-up towards our third goal. His over-the-top ball would find Yasir on the left flank near the corner flag. The resulting cut back was measured perfectly for Boris, and, despite having Zulfahmi Arifin breathing down his neck, he was able to turn the Hougang man and volley it past Mukun for his 30th of the season, and 100th of his storied career so far. 1-3 and that was the perfect response to stop the game slipping away from our hands.
Soon after, the Half-Time whistle came to end what was a very productive first half, and we were this much closer to a 8-point lead over 4th placed Tanjong Pagar United.
As we stepped out for the second half, Young Buck Ong Yu En emerged as a substitute for the impressive Syed Firdaus.
Syazwan, who had himself a great first half, produced yet another save early in the second half as he clawed away Pedro’s header after a well-taken free kick from Krajcek. It was looking to be another top tier performance from our number 1.
Clear cut opportunities were few and far between in the opening minutes of the Second Half, but Coach Gavin looked to change that as he brought on Zeko for Firdaus Kasman at the 66 minute mark. It was a substitution that nearly made an immediate impact.
With Boris making his trademark run through the centre, Zeko played a magnificent through ball behind the covering centre-back to play Boris in. Unfortunately, his shot was saved by the legs of Mukun - so agonizingly close to his 31st of the season, but he would soon get another opportunity to get his second of the game.
Irfan made a marauding run down the right wing, and played a pass to Boris who looked to spin beyond Zulfahmi. In doing that, Boris was caught by the Hougang player in the box, and without hesitation, the referee pointed to the spot.
Despite missing the earlier penalty, Boris would step up again but to a different result, as he sent his powerful spot kick beyond the despairing dive of Mukun. Redemption as the scoreboard read 1-4, and with that goal, our Top Goalscorer once again pulled level with Kodai Tanaka at the top of the scoring charts with 31 for the season.
As the final whistle went, cheers went off in the Away end as The Stand celebrated a 5th victory out of the last 6 unbeaten games.
2 games to go, and with braces from our forwards, we find ourselves on the cusp of a comfortable 3rd place finish if results go our way on Sunday. This might not have been the case based on early season form, to which we have drastically improved over the course of time. Coach Gavin spoke about this, and had high praise on how the team improved through the season, especially defensively.
“At the start of the year, it was a new and young back line. They were finding their way, and credit to them, they stuck by it and the senior players also stuck by them. I think they are starting to take a very good shape and form, and as a result of that, our team defense overall is a lot better.”
The start of the game saw players like Zeko, Yu En and Joel Chew all available to come on for us, and when asked about the depth of the midfield, Coach Gavin pointed to the youthfulness of the squad and how this can only bode well for the future of the team.
“For the team to have the luxury of players coming off the bench is good. It helps us to see off games stronger because at the start of the year, we hadn’t necessarily gotten to this stage (of team depth). Again, the team is growing together, and it is also fantastic to see the younger players contributing to the team.”
We had a chance to catch up with Young Buck Ong Yu En, who was in high spirits after the game.
“I thought we did well as a unit, and every one of us brought the energy required to win on this difficult ground and at this stage of the season. (With) Hougang reduced to 10 men, we still had to close out the game, and I was glad that we were able to capitalize and knock home that advantage to win 4-1.”
On the striking side of the coin, Boris Kopitovic not only drew level with Kodai Tanaka at the top of the SPL scoring charts, but he has also scored his 100th and 101st career goal, mostly in the Yellow of Tampines.
“I feel great to know about that stat, but I also feel great about the win tonight because a third place (finish) is the goal of the club now, and the club goals are more important than my goals. We gave our best for every ball and won every 50-50 duel so we definitely deserved this result.”
Goalscorer Taufik Suparno also shared the sentiments of his strike partner in regards to the club’s current position, and he reflected on how the season has panned out for the team.
“At the beginning of the season, of course, we always want to achieve the championship, but in our current situation, we are happy with where we are now (3rd place). At the end of the day, we always want to finish in the highest position possible. The season definitely isn’t easy, and there are so many ups and downs, but we always try to do better in every game be it in the attacking or defending phases.”
Lastly, with Coach Gavin speaking earlier on our improved defense, we could not leave out one of the defensive linchpins in Japanese defender Shuya Yamashita. The 23-year old joined us from Albirex this season, and has been in good form through the season despite this being his first local club. As we spoke to him, we could tell of his high standards and always wanting to do better.
“Of course we (would) prefer to finish higher, but today we managed to get the 3 points which was good. The next game, to me, is a must win and we must look (to) get a clean sheet. We have one week to prepare well, and to hopefully get the 3 points again.”
Strong words from an even stronger person, and we are definitely looking forward to seeing more of him on the pitch in Tampines Yellow.
Speaking of strong, The Stand once again came out in strength for us in our final Away game of the season and provided the energy and noise to push us all the way to the final whistle. We can’t wait to return Home, and play out the last two games of the season in front of all of you, as we give a final hurrah to close out the season. See you all next week!