Derby days always feel different, don’t they? Anticipation added on to the dread of having to deal with rival fans’ banter if your team had lost the game. Even though we had won all 3 of our Eastern Derby clashes so far this season, these matches are always testy affairs, and are usually goal fests with 12 goals notched in the last 3 meetings. A win here would almost certainly guarantee 3rd place for us, but Geylang would not make this easy.
Our partners at Canadian Pizza came in clutch with a complimentary pizza party for our valued Season Pass Holders to soothe even the most hardened cases of dread. On the playing end, we were forced into one change from our last starting lineup against the Lion City Sailors with Captain Yasir Hanapi serving a one match suspension. In his place, came Zehrudin ‘Zeko’ Memedovic to take his place in midfield alongside Kyoga Nakamura and Syed Firdaus Hassan.
Kyoga was presented with his award for Goal of the Month for August after his superlative strike in the previous Eastern Derby fixture. Another momentous occasion was the return of Joel Chew after his National Service commitments and his stint with the Young Lions. He would start on the bench for this game, but having signed a 5-year contract with the Stags at the beginning of the season, we are certain he would make the starting lineup sooner or later.
Before kickoff, a tranquil minute’s silence was observed in light of the passing of FAS President, Lim Kia Tong. As a mark of respect, the players of both teams were also wearing black armbands to honour his passing.
Our rivals took the early initiative with a header by Rio Sakuma sailing just over Syazwan Buhari’s crossbar. Warning signs were there, but the Stags then gained control of the matchup. Syed Firdaus, fresh from his first International minutes with the Singapore National Team last week, made a strong run which ended with a pass to top scorer Boris Kopitovic, whose shot was blocked by a retreating Joshua Pereira.
Despite the break from domestic football for the last three weeks, the Stags looked sharp with tidy passes between all parts of the field. Ryaan Sanizal and Taufik Suparno also caused problems for the Geylang defence, with the former firing a shot wide after a mix up in the box.
The latter would be involved in perhaps our best chance of the game, as he was picked out by Shuya Yamashita down the right with a pinpoint long ball. His run and cross was met by Boris, but he would send his effort uncharacteristically wide.
With all the chances falling to us, we had to be aware of the Eagle's counter-attacking threat, especially with Tajeli Salamat playing in an unfamiliar winger role, and Sime Zuzul with his predatory instinct. This was on full display at the 40-minute mark as he spun Shuya, but could only find the gloves of Syazwan with his resulting shot.
With Kyoga and Zeko in midfield, passes were again moving like clockwork with both combining in the 42nd minute to send Boris through once again, but he skewed his shot again wide of the target. It was a tough day at the office for our Serbian hitman, who was finding the space, but just could not find the cutting edge. He then nearly turned provider for Taufik Suparno, but ‘The Dancing King’ had to stretch to connect with his shot, which found the grateful arms of Zaiful Nizam.
As the half-time whistle blew, the deadlock was still intact though not without the lack of trying. Credit also to Irfan Najeeb who was making himself a constant threat with his marauding runs down the right flank. We needed a big second half if we wanted to complete the clean sweep against Geylang.
As the players went into the tunnel for the half-time break, we invited our esteemed guests from St Stephen’s School to participate in a fun half-time game. The schoolchildren showed their natural footballing prowess to The Stand as they won prizes courtesy of Canadian Pizza, before taking their seats to cheer us on for the next 45.
The second half started off as how the first half ended, with Boris once again getting an opportunity but shooting wide after great work to brush off Rio. This would, however, spark a Geylang insurgence with the familiar Vincent Bezecourt at the heart of it.
His first action in the 54th minute would be to rattle his inswinging free kick off the crossbar which, if just an inch lower, would have been placed in the top corner.
Syazwan was called into action just 6 minutes later when he parried Bezecourt’s left footed shot after a layoff from Zuzul. Bezecourt would then be the main architect yet again as his combination with Zuzul resulted in a shot, which Amirul Haikal brilliantly cleared off our lines.
Right after that Geylang chance, there was space to exploit, which we nearly capitalized on with Boris running through onto the clearance. Zaiful initially did well to read the danger but made a hash of his clearance. Leaving Boris with an open goal, albeit on a tight and far angle, we unfortunately failed to take advantage as his attempt from distance failed to hit the target.
The sustained Eagles pressure would force Coach Gavin Lee’s hand to make substitutions. On came Chris Van Huizen for Ong Yu En, but the biggest cheer from The Stand on the night would come for Joel Chew as he would make his Our Tampines Hub return in place of Zeko.
The derby would continue with both sides fighting the midfield battle without really producing any clear-cut chances. Bezecourt would have the clearest opportunity when he ran onto a cut back from Zuzul once again, but he would blaze his effort high and wide.
Boris would have the last chance of the game in the 92nd minute when he connected with Irwan Shah’s cross with a diving header, but it was well saved by Zaiful, which capped off the story of the night’s fixture - many near chances for both teams, but none successfully converted.
Unfortunately, we could not get the clean sweep over our Eastern rivals, however the point earned keeps us firmly in 3rd Spot, 5 points ahead of Tanjong Pagar United with 3 games left to play. As long as we better the Jaguars’ result in the next game, we will be guaranteed 3rd Place as well as a coveted spot in the AFC Cup once again.
We had cause to be optimistic for our next match-ups, as the game was marked by the return of midfield maestro Joel Chew, with whom we had a few words with after the game :
“It’s amazing to finally be back after 2 years, and I am really flattered and grateful by the support from the fans. I just wanted to say a huge thank you for all the support towards the team, and we will try our best to make them leave with a smile after every game.”
On the game, he reflected, “I could’ve done better individually, and the nerves being the first game back probably got to me a little bit - but I thought I managed to slot in quite nicely despite only training with the team for a week. I would also like to say a big thank you to the team for the warm welcome back, and they’ve all been great to me since I returned. I can’t wait for more.”
Our trusty custodian Syazwan Buhari also made some crucial saves, and
“Geylang made it really difficult for us but we had our chances as well. Overall I feel (the draw) was a fair result considering we were coming back from 3 weeks without a game, and we will look to sharpen our tools for the next game.
We can see a vast improvement from the earlier part of the season, and defending has been something Coach Gavin has been working on a lot during the international break, and we can see the results and hopefully maintain this level of defensive performance.”
On the ice-cold saves he brought to the table, Syazwan tabled an equally cool response “I just had to do my job. The defence did an excellent job, and I just had to pick up the final pieces.”
He also has words for the packed crowd that came to cheer the players on throughout the 90 minutes, “The Stand has been very vocal in support, and it's nice as a player to have that energy when you are playing. Hopefully we can repay that by getting good results in the final 3 games of the Singapore Premier League season.”
All the best Syazwan and Joel, and to The Stand - we thank you as always for your support. Onto the next one!