Gloomy skies and showers were upon us as we faced off against Young Lions in a crunch game at Jalan Besar Stadium. With this being our game in hand, a win would take us above Tanjong Pagar in 3rd Place and put us in the driver’s seat for the AFC Cup slot.
Young Lions came into this game wounded with 3 heavy defeats on the spin, but we could not take that for granted as they still have the capacity to cause damage, especially on the counter attack. We found that out in the last match when we had to overturn a 2 goal lead to win 3-2 in the previous fixture at Our Tampines Hub.
As for team news, Irwan Shah returned to the starting lineup while Zehrudin Memedovic was still out with injury. As the first whistle blew, we were 90 minutes away from either the coveted 3rd spot or throwing our game in hand away.
Goals were to be expected in this one, and we nearly had the first one in the 2nd minute. Kyoga Nakamura played a ball over the top of the Young Lions’ defence to find our top scorer Boris Kopitovic battling Syed Akmal to the ball. It seemed our Montenegrin Hitman had the upper hand, but pressure from the defender was enough to put him off from finishing the chance.
Head Coach Gavin spoke about the Young Lions’ counter attacking threat in the pre-match interview and that nearly proved our undoing. Glenn Kweh burst forward and found Abdul Rasaq on the left - his shot, however, was tame and straight at Stags’ keeper Syazwan Buhari.
We did soon have the ball in the Young Lions net in the 10th minute, but Taufik Suparno was adjudged to have used his hand to knock the ball in, after Boris’s cross was deflected into him by a Young Lions’ defender. A disappointing turn of events, but Taufik was not to be denied 3 minutes later.
Kyoga would drive a diagonal pass to the right side for Irwan Shah to run onto. As he approached the byline, he switched to his stronger left foot, and whipped a teasing cross into the box. Despite the attention of Jordan Emaviwe, Taufik was able to get to the ball first, and he diverted it into the corner of the net for a well-deserved goal. 1-0.
For the following 15 minutes, we would go on to control the game, and had a couple further opportunities to score. As usual, it would be our top scorer, Boris, in the middle of it all. First, he would connect with Captain Yasir Hanapi’s inswinging free kick only to see his header hit the bar. Then, the offside flag would deny him as he knocked in a rebound after Kyoga’s shot was saved by Young Lions’ keeper Ridhwan Fikri.
Despite our dominance, Young Lions nearly grabbed a shock equalizer. Abdul Rasaq would take advantage of a defensive lapse and run through on goal. Syazwan stood tall as he saved the first shot, and when the ball rebounded back to Rasaq, he would only find the side netting.
After the scare, normal service resumed for the Stags as we once again dominated possession and created further chances. In the 31st minute, Boris would round the keeper after a delightful through ball by Taufik, but no one got onto the end of his cross to grab the second goal.
Young Lions struggled to deal with our first half press, and this was shown in our next chance - Amirul Haikal pushed up to steal the ball from Glenn in the 39th minute. He fed the ball to Boris who, despite the tight angle, tried to bend the ball round the keeper but to no success. We were getting closer to that all important second goal.
Boris would get the last chance right at the end of the half, as he met Taufik’s deflected cross with a volley, but it would only go straight into Ridhwan’s arms. A lot of missed opportunities in the first half, but we went into the half-time break with the all-important lead.
Young Lions started the second half brightly, as they won the second balls and took control of possession at certain moments. We would, however, end up with the first opportunity of the half.
Yasir’s quickly-taken free kick released Kyoga, who broke into the box, and his attempted cross deflected off a Young Lions’ defender and crashed into the post. That could have been a sign that the tides might have been changing, but the exact opposite happened as the Young Lions started growing in confidence.
Zikos Chua would be the focal point of their attack, and he had his first chance in the 52nd minute as he chased down Raoul Suhaimi’s header, but his shot sailed over the bar.
There were times when Young Lions would drop their guard though, and we nearly punished them with our signature high press. We won the ball in their half, and Kyoga played in Iman Hakim whose cross found Boris, who only managed to find the arms of Ridhwan again.
As the half wore on, both sides had their moments, but could not produce clear cut chances. As much as we would try to keep possession, we were unable to find that killer pass to break through for a second goal. Young Lions saw this and nearly took advantage towards the end with a couple of near misses.
It was defender Raoul that created the first chance, as he drove into the attacking half. His pass found Zikos who turned smartly but his shot was well saved by Syazwan. Just as we thought that scare was over, substitute Harith Kanadi then took a shot on goal, but trusty Syazwan was there to save the day again.
The last chance of the game would then fall to Zikos, when he headed Shah Shahiran’s free kick wide of the target. The Stand all breathed a sigh of relief as the final whistle blew. Job done.
3 points, a clean sheet and a win that nudged us into 3rd Place in the SPL table. A perfect end to a not-so-perfect performance on the night.
We can definitely take comfort from the fact that, at times this season, we have played much better and lost. Head Coach Gavin Lee reflected on the night’s performance.
“If we were going through this at the start of the year, we might not have brought home the 3 points, so there is a sort of development there. I think most of the issues came about because we could not build on any momentum, and we held ourselves back due to our mistakes.
There were, however, positives that we can take from this game, and Gavin also highlighted these points.
“One positive is the clean sheet. You could see the players trying to guide each other in their way. You can recognise that the players know that it was not good enough, so that self awareness was important to see. Now, it is about recovering as much as we can, and preparing in the best possible way for Balestier.”
Our match-winner Taufik Suparno, who scored his 8th goal in this SPL season, also gave us his thoughts on the performance :
“I am happy to get the winning goal for the team, but performance wise I think we can do better. We have the potential to do a lot better in terms of keeping possession, and it should have been an easy game but we pressured ourselves too much. Nevertheless, it was good to get the 3 points.”
To The Stand, sometimes we struggle to find the words to say to thank you all for your support. So we let Taufik do the honours :
“I want to thank the fans for taking the time out to always give their fullest support. Without them, we could not have gotten the 3 points - they always have our backs.”
With the 3 points in the bag, let's get ready to return home and welcome the Tigers of Balestier Khalsa.