In the penultimate match of the Singapore Premier League campaign, we faced the newly-crowned SPL Champions, Albirex Niigata (S) for the final time this SPL season. Yet, while the title race may be over and our third-placed finish secured, we could not rest on our laurels. After all, with the Singapore Cup around the corner, we had plenty to play for in this clash. As the defending Singapore Cup champions, Our Stags looked to treat the remaining fixtures seriously in preparation for the upcoming tournament.
Furthermore, our foes this evening have equalled our record for the most number of professional league titles won by currently active Singapore outfits. This was an encounter between two of the most well-coached and successful sides in Singapore. Of course, both clubs have drawn swords on numerous occasions but jointly holding this record certainly adds a new dimension to the already deep rivalry.
There was another element to this clash. Albirex forward Kodai Tanaka and our towering Montenegrin Boris Kopitović were tied at the top of the goal-scoring charts with 31 goals apiece. Both strikers knew this game would be a golden opportunity to establish a clear lead.
Knowing the significance of this fixture, Our Stags marched onto the pitch, eager to clinch another victory following their triumphant 4-1 win over Hougang United, and build upon our much-needed momentum heading into the Singapore Cup.
The First Half
As soon as the match started, Our Stags looked to establish their authority, but it was Albirex that struck first. The White Swans gained the lead through Ilhan Fandi in the opening minute. It was certainly a bitter early blow, but Our Stags picked themselves up right away and looked to reassert control of the game. We trailed 0-1 but we knew full well that there was still plenty of time to go. Our Head Coach Gavin Lee had devised a game plan, and Our Stags assumed their battle stations. It was game on.
After a series of chances, we earned a corner in the 10th minute, hungry to equalize. Yasir Hanapi expertly whipped in a cross that connected with 20-year-old Ryaan Sanizal. Our rock in the back managed to produce a looping header that found Big Bad Boris, who wasted no time to seize his chance. The forward executed a delightful overhead kick to send the ball into the back of the net to level the scoreline. That acrobatic finish marked his 32nd goal of the season and Boris edged past Kodai to regain his place as the league's Top Scorer, for the moment at least.
1-1, the Stags were back in it.
With renewed confidence, Our Stags began to take hold of the game. Learning from their first-minute blunder, they worked together to shut down the White Swans’ offensive movements. It was the same story on the opposite side of the pitch. Kyoga Nakamura truly haunted his former side as he helmed the middle of the park, connecting well with his teammates and helped marshal the Tampines attack. Likewise, Taufik Suparno regularly slipped through the Albirex backline and found space for himself, as he constantly scanned his surroundings to link with Boris.
Backed by the united voice of The Stand, the momentum of the game had shifted in our favour, and even though our efforts in the final third were repeatedly denied by an equally stoic Albirex defence, Our Stags soldiered on to get a second goal.
After several attempts, they finally got it. 19-year-old Young Buck Ong Yu En produced an incredible low-driven pass that precisely slipped through the Albirex backline and found Taufik Suparno. Our ‘Dancing King’ calmly slotted it past Takahiro Koga to unleash a resounding cheer from The Stand. Taufik’s strike was the striker’s 12th of the season and it gave us a well-deserved lead toward the end of the first 45-minute period. 2-1 to Tampines Rovers.
Not long after, the referee brought the first half to an end. As Our Stags walked to the locker room in high spirits, they knew in the back of their minds that the job was far from over - such is the quality of the newly crowned league champions. They had to be at their best again to weather the storm that the second half was about to bring.
Before the players took the field again, we took some time to invite our lovely guests from Club Partners JSSL Singapore to participate in a fun half-time game. The aspiring footballers showcased their skills in a Passing Challenge, and they won prizes courtesy of Bauerfeind Sports Singapore, before taking their seats to cheer us on for the next half.
The Second Half
As the second-half whistle blew, we looked to continue piling on the pressure against the 2022 SPL Champions. Yet, as previously mentioned, one can never underestimate Albirex and rightfully so. The White Swans equalized in the 54th minute with Kodai Tanaka bagging the equalizer and his 32nd goal of the campaign, re-establishing himself once again as the joint-Top Scorer alongside Boris. The race for the Golden Boot would continue, and the scoreline was once again levelled, 2-2.
As we looked to inject some energy into the game, Zehrudin Mehmedović was introduced in the 62nd minute, replacing Yu En who had put in a spectacular shift, and 5 minutes after his introduction, the coaching staff’s decision to substitute Mehmedović in proved to be a tactical masterclass.
Our Serbian Magician made his presence felt as he drilled a clever pass to Boris down the left flank. Our Number 9 turned away from his marker, but his shot ricocheted off Albirex keeper Takahiro Koga. Our skipper, Yasir Hanapi was there to ensure Our Stags regained their lead, as he instinctively headed the ball into the back of the net to make it 3-2.
But Our Stags were far from done. Soon after the restart, we executed a well-choreographed attack and scored again. Hungry to extend the lead and take his foothold in the Golden Boot race, Boris slipped through the cracks of the Albirex defence and he would not be denied this time. ‘Big Bad’ Boris clinched his 33rd goal and gave the team a good cushion with a clinical strike. A quick double for us, and that made it 4-2 to the Stags.
In the 73rd minute, we once again added fresh pairs of legs to see out this victory. Taufik Suparno and Syed Firdaus Hassan were brought off - the duo had performed brilliantly and were met with rapturous applause from The Stand, thanking them for their efforts. Replacing them were Joel Chew and Firdaus Kasman, who were tasked with two objectives - adding more steel to the heart of midfield and seeing this victory through.
Albirex were not about to stop their attacks, and continued to pepper the Rovers' defence as they aimed to claw their way back. Despite this, our young but sturdy backline held on. Ryaan Sanizal and Shuya Yamashita put their bodies on the line to block several shots. Similarly, Syazwan Buhari stretched beyond his limits to pull off an important save in the 78th minute.
In the 85th minute, Albirex won a corner kick, and Idetsu Masaya’s lofted cross found Kodai Tanaka, who unleashed a patented strong header - the striker being one of the league’s top aerial threats. It proved too powerful for Ryaan to clear, and would unfortunately go down as an own goal for the young defender, though with full credit to a well-hit effort from the Japanese. 4-3.
Our Stags may have previously slipped up in this position, but with hard work in training, they would demonstrate to everyone that they have truly learned from previous episodes.
Four minutes later, Our Stags earned a corner of their own. Yasir played it short to Kyoga, who was well beyond the edge of the box - but that was not going to stop our midfield general. Our very own Japanese magician unleashed an absolute long-range screamer that zipped past Albirex keeper Koga at his near post to reinstate our two-goal advantage against the White Swans. 5-3 to Tampines.
The White Swans tried their best to salvage a draw but Our Stags held firm as we resolutely defended until the final whistle, and when it was blown, it was truly a moment of euphoria. Victory always tastes sweet, but a hard-fought one against a difficult side like Albirex made it taste even sweeter.
This win marked Albirex’s first loss in 13 matches, and while many factors contributed to this remarkable result, one key highlight was the coaching and tactical preparations that proved fundamental to the win.
“We never changed our approach since the start of our season,” explains Kyoga. “We have many young players in the squad this season, and with the high level of coaching, they have improved a lot over the season.”
Our Assistant Coach, Fahrudin Mustafić further expands on this coaching factor:
“While we have built our confidence with each passing week, we made it a point to work on certain elements during training this past week to stop the Albirex attacks. The coaching staff worked hard with the players, and, aside from the lapses of concentration, today we could see how the defence did well in dealing with the constant threat posed by the opposition frontline. Of course, there is still work to be done - I think we can all agree we let in some soft goals tonight, but we are proud of how the defensive line coped overall today and the overall fighting spirit of the team.”
There was added incentive for us to beat Albirex. After all, following the recent 3-1 win over the Lion City Sailors, the White Swans remained the only side that we failed to beat this season.
“There was a lot of motivation to beat them today because (Albirex) was the only team that we have not beaten this season,” explains Irfan Najeeb. “Yes, they are the newly-crowned champions, but we set out to prove not only to them, but to ourselves that we can compete with them. Looking ahead at the league next year, we need to build from our experiences this campaign and we look forward to stepping up to seriously contend for the title.”
Likewise, Ryaan Sanizal echoes Irfan’s sentiments on stepping up.
“It was a good win for us, and as a defensive unit we need to improve more,” shares Ryaan. “We conceded 3 goals today which was less than ideal, but I do think we are improving and we need to continue working hard to shore up the defence as we look to the upcoming Singapore Cup and the following SPL season.”
Following the results from last week’s matches, we secured Third Place, an achievement worth celebrating given the exceptionally young squad we boast. The Tampines squad has an average age of 23.6 years, and many young stalwarts have risen through the ranks, and made their bow this campaign.
One player that has been labelled an inspiration for the Young Bucks in the squad is our league-leading hitman Boris, who once again banged in the goals when it mattered. Many saw this game as a battle between the league’s current top scorers, but while he is gunning for the SPL Golden Boot, Boris insists that the team comes first.
“This was not a battle between Kodai and myself, it was a match between Tampines Rovers and Albirex Niigata,” asserts Boris. “I am proud that we scored 5 goals as a unit against the team with arguably the best defence in the league. Not every team can do it, and we took our chances this game. You can be sure we will do the same against Tanjong Pagar United in the final game of the season, as we aim for three points to finish the season as strongly as possible.”
You heard Boris, and we can’t wait to see you for the final game of what turned out to be an enthralling season of Singapore Premier League football. We’ll see you, The Stand, back at Our Tampines Hub next week!