After a season filled with invaluable lessons, Our Stags take to the field for one final time in the 2022 Singapore Premier League season. While we secured Third Place a couple of weeks back, it's not in our DNA to ease off. Finishing the season as strongly as possible has been a tradition that we’ve upheld for decades, and this fixture would not be any different.
Our opponents were certainly not going to take things easy. Only a point separated Tanjong Pagar United and our Eastern rivals Geylang International. The Jaguars hence knew that this fixture was a must-win encounter to stand any chance of continental qualification.
With the chorus of chants by The Stand echoing throughout Our Tampines Hub, Our Stags walked onto the pitch fully aware of the task at hand. Not long after, the referee blew his whistle and in doing so, ushered in the final minutes of SPL action for 2022.
Asserting influence from the get-go has been something that we have been working on all season and like previous times, we quickly seized possession from the visitors, but retaining it was certainly a physical affair. After the opening minutes where both sides tussled for control, Our Stags began to control the tempo of the game.
Syed Firdaus found space down the right flank and whipped a cross into the middle of the box which connected with Taufik Suparno. Taufik instinctively flicked the ball towards the far post for Boris Kopitovic, but our towering Montenegrin was just too far away on this occasion.
Not long after, Irwan Shah found space down the left wing and delivered one of his signature crosses that, this time, connected with Boris in the penalty box, but his header was just wide.
With our attacking plays causing problems in the Tanjong Pagar defence, it was unfortunate that barely a minute later, it was the Jaguars that drew first blood. Blake Ricciuto scored from a Shoda Nishikawa cross to give them the lead. 1-0 to the visitors, but Our Stags responded by increasing the intensity.
After several attempts we finally found the equalizer. Standing outside the box, Irfan Najeeb picks out the run that our Number 9 was about to make, and carefully lobs the ball into the box to find Boris. Boris’ strike finds Yasir Hanpi at the near end, and our skipper leads by example by cooly slotting the ball into the back of the net. 1-1.
Yet, the Jaguars have demonstrated they are a tricky side to deal with in our previous encounters and this fixture proved no different. They re-gained the lead from a corner with Mirko Sugic powerfully heading in a precise delivery in the 27th minute. 2-1 to the Jaguars.
If there’s one thing that we learned this season, it is to never give up, and following Mirko’s strike, Our Stags began to pepper the Tanjong Pagar goal with crosses and shots. Down but never out, we forged ahead knowing that there was plenty of time to make a comeback if we seized our chances. Despite our attempts, we could not find a way to break through, and the referee called for half-time.
Our Stags headed into the dressing room knowing that they needed to dig deep, regroup, and take inspiration from previous episodes this season to muster the resurgence we are capable of pulling off - after all, our previous encounter was exactly that - a comeback victory that ended up in a 4-3 victory for us.
We commenced the second half by picking up from where we left off in the first half. Launching waves of attacking movements, we knew that it was only time before chinks in the Jaguars’ armour would appear. With that, the game slowly morphed into an intense physical battle with both sides looking to have shifted into a different gear.
Our Stags seemed that much hungrier to get back into the game, and Taufik Suparno came close to gaining the all-elusive equalizer, but his sizzling shot rattled the crossbar and out of play in the 58th minute. Just when Lady Luck seemed to have left our side, we finally earned a well-deserved break.
Our Serbian magician, Zehrudin Mehmedović, found space on the right flank and crossed the ball in, but the ball struck the arm of the Jaguars’ skipper Faritz Hameed. Penalty to the Stags, and there was no question who was going to take this penalty.
Who else, but our towering Montenegrin stepped up to the plate. From the penalty spot, ‘Big Bad’ Boris was never going to miss, and he duly drilled it past Tanjong Pagar custodian Zharfan Rohaizad to score his 34th goal of the campaign and make it 2-2. Game on.
Mere minutes later, Ong Yu En was brought onto the pitch to replace Syed Firdaus Hassan, who had himself a good shift in the middle of the park. Yu En injected some fresh pace as Our Stags pressed hard for the lead.
After another slew of efforts, Our Stags were rewarded yet again. Mehmedović executed a brilliant pass that slipped through the Jaguars defence and found Boris in the penalty box. Our towering Montenegrin was brought down, and the referee didn’t have to think twice. He pointed towards the penalty spot for another spot-kick.
Once again, it was Boris who took responsibility, and once again, he slotted it past Zharfan who, this time, simply stood rooted to the spot. That goal marked Boris’s 35th of the campaign, giving him a 3-goal cushion over Kodai Tanaka in the race for the SPL Golden Boot. More importantly, it was 3-2 to Tampines.
However, there was yet another twist in the tale. Soon after the kickoff, the Jaguars responded in quick fashion through an unstoppable Khairul Nizam strike to the roof of the net. The scoreline was leveled once again. 3-3.
We needed another creative spark in the middle of the park, and on cue, Joel Chew was introduced in the 79th minute, replacing Taufik Suparno.
We knew full well that the Jaguars were going to up the ante, and Syazwan Buhari was on hand, as he then pulled off an amazing save to deny Tanjong Pagar from gaining the lead. With both teams determined to claim three points, we needed someone to step up, and a certain catalyst eventually did.
In stoppage time, it was none other than #OneOfOurOwn, the returning Joel Chew who managed to clinch the game winner. His substitution clearly paid off, as he was on the end of a determined Boris touch, calmly slotting it home. What a way to clinch his first goal - the matchwinner - since his return home to Tampines. 4-3 to The Stags.
Not long later, the referee then blew his final whistle. Our 2022 SPL journey had effectively come to an end - a positive one at that. The Stand gave Our Stags a standing ovation to demonstrate their gratitude for their hard work this campaign. Likewise, Our Stags thanked the Tampines faithful for their continued support. Whether it was a home or away game, The Stand never failed to support the team and our 12th Man did their part to spur the team on in crucial moments across the season.
Yet, while the SPL may have ended, our season is not over by any stretch of the imagination. The Singapore Cup awaits and as defending champions, Our Stags are determined to retain their crown, and they will be helped along by new additions in the team. One of them, Rezza Rezky, earned his first minutes in a Tampines shirt this very game.
“I feel really honored to play for this big club, and thankful for the team for giving me a chance to play, and trusting my abilities. Being a part of this comeback is really a great feeling - the team doesn’t give up, and gives it their all until the very last minute.”
This laser-focus is a fact echoed by one of the night’s star players, Boris Kopitovic.
“Now our focus is on the Singapore Cup. We are the defending champions, and this season we must continue to play our style of football against a very hard group of opponents. It will not be easy, but the boys will come back from a short break and try our best.” said Boris.
Doing it all on the attacking front, Boris provided one of his assists to a recently-returning Stag to score a last-minute game winner. Joel Chew was especially delighted with getting on the scoresheet, but more importantly, to help the team towards the win in the end.
“It definitely felt good, but the most important thing was that we came to get the 3 points to end the season on a high, and that’s what we did. I think we came out with a stronger will to win in the second half, and that’s a really important thing in our football.”
He also had a note for The Stand, who gave a rapturous reaction to his late game winner.
“The support was unbelievable, and with every Home game I’m even more impressed with the support. I’m very grateful and happy to have gotten the winning goal to put a smile on all their faces.”
And as one final question hangs in the balance - where the league’s Golden Boot award will go is up to the last fixtures happening later tonight, ‘Big Bad’ Boris is confident that he has played his part for the team tonight, and with 2 goals and 2 assists this game, we would agree wholeheartedly.
“I gave my very best tonight, and overall I think this is a successful season for me and for the club also for clinching that important 3rd Place spot. About the Golden Boot, I may be ahead by 3 goals, but who knows what can happen!”
And when we asked whether Boris will be keeping a keen eye on his fellow Golden Boot competitor, Kodai Tanaka in the final matches of the season, he replied “Of course I’ll be watching the game between Albirex and Geylang, but to be honest, I watch every game!”
All the best, Boris! To The Stand, we’ll see you once again as we look to extend our eight-game unbeaten streak when our Singapore Cup season kicks off against Geylang International on the 28th of October!