As we braced for our third Eastern Derby of the campaign, both sides came into this in very different form. Ever since our last Derby victory, GIFC had gone unbeaten in 7 games. Winning 5, drawing 2 and conceding 4 goals in that period while our Stags have only won 1 of the last 7. But on derby day, that's when the form books are totally thrown out the window.
We were missing Yasir and Taufik due to suspension but welcomed back Iman Hakim and Ong Yu En into the starting pack. Extra firepower was also on the bench with Chris Van Huizen and Zehrudin ‘Zeko’ Mehmedovic returning. As the temperature rose and fever pitch set in, we took the field in what could be the most important derby in a long while.
Geylang, true to their form, started the brighter of the 2 sides. They controlled possession early on with Joshua Pereira at the heart of their midfield pulling the strings and Vincent Bezecourt looking to find the passes between the lines. Their first chance came on 4 minutes from an unlikely source, with Rio Sakuma heading wide after a Bezecourt freekick.
Our first chance would come at the 11-minute mark, a great run made by Syed Firdaus from an unfamiliar position of right wingback drove into the Geylang half. His cut back unfortunately was missed by Iman, and fell to Irwan Shah, whose shot was skewed well wide. But in the 17th minute, we would draw first blood.
Syed Firdaus would again be involved as his pass down the right flank found Boris Kopitovic. Despite Faizal Roslan at his back, he was able to turn the defender expertly and charge into the penalty area. Even at a quite improbable angle, Boris on this form, found the bottom corner with a low drive past the last ditch tackle from Sakuma and Zaiful in goal. 0-1 to us and 21 this season for our Montenegrin hotshot.
Sakuma would have another chance on our goal this time being set up by Khairul Hairie. Khairul would run the byline into the box and play a cut back into the Japanese, but good defending from us smothered any chance of him having a proper connection to the ball.
Nine minutes before the break, Boris would have his chance to double the Stags lead. Iman would find Kyoga on the edge of the box who served a one-touch pass into the path of our Montenegrin hitman. However, his first shot and follow-up header were both saved well by Zaiful. It seemed as if we were going into the last period of the half, the stronger side. But the tide soon shifted.
Geylang would hit the woodwork 3 times in as many minutes. First, a quick throw-in from Bezecourt to Zuzul would catch out our defence, the big man would then evade the challenge of Ryaan but found his shot rifling against the post. Bezecourt would then be involved again as his deflected pass into the box found Tezuka - his cross would then find the head of Zuzul who looped it onto the bar. Ryaan just a minute later would nearly put it into his own net but the post came to his rescue after he came over to deal with a Geylang attack involving Sakuma and Zuzul.
As the whistle to end the half came, we trudged back into the tunnel with the goal advantage. Geylang did have the better of the 1st half but we were clinical with the chances we had and there was all to play for in the second.
The second half saw the introduction of Van Huizen for Firdaus Kasman. This meant Syed Firdaus, who had a very industrious first half would be moved back to his familiar midfield role while Chris would revert to right wing-back where he has made that slot his own this season.
The first 10 minutes of the half would encapsulate a derby fixture with both teams trying to stamp their authority on the game but nothing in terms of clear-cut chances for either.
In the 57th minute, Bezecourt had a shot from outside the box which was well saved by Syazwan, and the subsequent cut back by Ahmad Syahir on the follow-up was well defended by the incoming Van Huizen.
Zehrudin Mehmedovic and Amirul Haikal would then be brought on in the 60th minute with Iman and Yu En making way. Both Young Bucks could hold their heads high on a great performance where they looked undeterred in midfield despite their age, turning away from tackles and getting fouls for our defence to play out.
The returning Zeko would make his presence felt just 5 minutes later, playing a wonderful flick into the path of Amirul, but his cross/shot could not find either Boris or the net. Geylang had the better of the possession but you just feel that if we could get our passing momentum going again, we would create more chances. And in the 70th minute, we would get that very opportunity.
Syed Firdaus would play an inch-perfect ball into the path of Irwan down the left flank. Irwan, upon spotting Boris in the box, plays the cross into the corridor of uncertainty between both defenders and keeper. Zaiful would punch but only straight to Zeko who was coolness personified as he slotted the ball past the onrushing keeper. 0-2 as Zeko earned his 5th of the SPL campaign.
Being two goals down, Geylang had to go for broke which would mean more opportunities to breach their defence as they pushed forward. However, they did get a sliver of hope as Zuzul ran through on goal, after a through ball from Rio, and rounded Syazwan to set up a grandstand finale. 1-2 but it wasn’t that long before we sealed the victory.
Irfan Najeeb stepped up brilliantly to intercept a pass from Sakuma, and he then played the ball to Boris. Again, despite having Abdil Qayimm breathing down his neck, he was able to spin away from the defender and begin his charge to the Geylang goal. As he charged, he assessed his options and played the ball across to Van Huizen who cut it back for Zeko.
As his shot was blocked, it fell kindly for Kyoga. From all of 30 yards out, he curled a superlative effort into the back of the net. Boris, like most of us in the stadium, had hands on his head just in admiration for what he had just witnessed. 1-3 and as Kyoga whipped out the Steph Curry ‘Night, Night’ celebration - it was surely the Eagles put to sleep for the night.
There was still enough time for Boris to get his second of the night and 22nd for the season. It was Kyoga and Zeko with fantastic combination play at the short corner, with the latter playing a neat back flick into the former. Kyoga then crossed low for Boris to just get the slightest of touches to make it 1-4.
In the dying embers of the game, there was another cause for celebration - 17-year old Young Buck Taras Goh making his senior team debut. And as the final whistle sounded, it marked another Eastern Derby win, making it 3 in 3 for the season.
As the final whistle went, hugs were given all around the squad for a great performance. Geylang made it tough as they always have in a game like this, and all credit to them, but we were clinical and took our chances and made it out with the morale-boosting victory.
MOTM rightly went to our Japanese maestro Kyoga, who, when asked about his goal, spoke about his work on the training pitch. “To be honest, I don't remember (the moment) much. But I practiced shooting from that spot every day. So that goal was made by daily practice.”
Head Coach Gavin Lee also reflected on the win and stated how important the squad collective is, whether they are slated to play or not.
“This game reflected our season where there were times we were put under pressure and we had to dig deep. It is also a reflection of what we have been trying to do over these last few weeks because results have not been good, but we continue to trust each other and work hard. Everyone still retains the belief in what we do and it is all about grinding it out until the results come along.”
He adds, “I am really pleased for all the players, not just the ones on the pitch but also those not involved, like Yasir and Taufik, who provided quality training to prepare the players for this game. Good victory for us but the players will be aware and calm to appreciate this, and we look forward to the next game.’
The Stand also made this a very special night and for them, Kyoga had this message to send. “We were finally able to put smiles on the faces of everyone who supported us. I was most happy to see that. Let's keep winning together.”