Having climbed into 3rd place with last week’s win over Tanjong Pagar, we had the chance to cement that spot with a win over Balestier Khalsa today. However, it’s never an easy task to beat the Tigers, having won 1 and drawn 2 of our meetings with them so far this season. Head Coach Gavin Lee alluded to the threat the 3 talented Japanese forwards possess and their strength on the counter attack as key areas of note.
One change to the lineup saw Ryaan Sanizal coming in for Irwan Shah to give us more of an aerial presence especially with Shuhei ‘Jumbo’ Hoshino leading the line for Balestier. As the theme song of professional wrestler Edge rang through Our Tampines Hub before kickoff, it was bound to be a rumbling 90 minutes for The Stand to enjoy.
We took an early initiative with the first chance of the game. Taufik Suparno, coming off scoring his 8th league goal in the last game, met a Yasir Hanapi freekick with a header that sailed over the bar. A warning shot fired early on.
It was not long before our top scorer, Boris Kopitovic, joined in with a shot that just sailed over the bar. Iman Hakim was the main architect of that move as he found our Montenegrin hitman in space.
We had our best chance in the 16th minute when Syed Firdaus burst past Balestier defender Muhd Khalili, drove into the box and found Taufik with a very clever cutback. Unfortunately, his shot was well saved by the feet of Balestier custodian Rudy Khairullah, who would prove to have himself quite a game.
In typical Stags’ fashion, we looked to dominate possession. However, like in our last game against the Young Lions, we struggled to fashion many clear cut opportunities. Boris did flash a cross which had to be dealt sharply with by Rudy, but we just weren't getting through.
‘Jumbo’ had a chance for the Tigers in the 40th minute, but his run and shot was saved comfortably by Syazwan Buhari in goal. Just when it seemed we were entering the break on level terms, we broke the deadlock.
Irfan Najeeb poked the ball through to Boris just outside the box with his back to goal. He was given the time to turn and face the defender, and next thing you know, Boris was able to evade the challenge from Ensar Bruncevic. From there, there was only one outcome, Boris smashed the ball home through the sharpest of angles, and made it 25 for the season.
The goal meant ‘Big Bad’ Boris once again climbed to the top of the goalscorers charts outright. A great way to end the half with the all-important first goal bagged as the scoreboard read 1-0.
Balestier came into the second half wanting to gain the upper hand as soon as possible, and Ho Wai Loon drove home the message with an early shot that went past Syazwan Buhari’s left post. This, unfortunately, was a foreshadowing of what was about to happen next.
Gareth Low received a pass on the edge of our box, and found Ryoya Taniguchi in space inside of him. A deflected pass later, and Jumbo would be on hand to tuck his right footed effort pass the reach of Syazwan. 1-1
Definitely a blow, but with so much of the second half to be played we were going to get our chances. Of course, being our top scorer for the season, Boris would be at the centre of the attacking work. First, Rudy had to deal with his fierce cross as he palmed it out of danger, and his trademark free-kick from 25 yards out unfortunately struck the side netting.
We still had to be wary of Balestier’s counter attacking threat though, with Kuraba Kondo nearly getting on the end of a Ho Wai Loon through ball, but Irfan did tremendously well to defend that situation.
Boris forced a great save again from Rudy after neat passing from back to front found the Montenegrin into the box. Passing out from the back does have its detractors, but with practice comes reward. Unfortunately for us, we could not reap the full rewards thanks to the intervention of the Balestier custodian.
With minutes ticking by, we needed a goal from anywhere, and Ryaan was nearly the one to provide it. A whipped free kick into the box by Yasir was met by his brave diving header but Rudy produced another great save, and Boris’s bicycle attempt afterwards went high over the bar. It seemed like we were never getting the goal, but that was until the 87th minute.
Zehrudin ‘Zeko’ Mehmedovic, having made his return by coming on as a second half substitute, was making a very positive impact, and it was his cross that brought chaos into the Balestier defence.
The ball would fall to Boris, and a combination of Jumbo and Ensar brought him down to which the referee immediately pointed to the spot.
After almost 2 minutes of protest from Balestier, Boris stepped up and coolly slotted past Rudy for his 26th goal of the season. This makes him the joint-top scorer in a single season with Mirko Grabovac in 2005 and Alexander Duric in 2011. With 6 games of the season to go, one would not bet against him smashing that record. 2-1.
As time ticked on, Balestier tried to throw everything they had at us. Quite literally, as former Stag Madhu Mohana demonstrated with his trademark long throws into the box. We defended well though, and as the final whistle went, The Stand erupted not only in celebration of the victory, but also the 4 point breathing space this victory provided in our hopes of AFC Cup qualification.
An important victory that takes us 4 points in front of our nearest challengers and Eastern rivals Geylang, in 4th spot. It was a tough one today against the Tigers, but though we did concede the equaliser, we pushed on and got the winner that was deserved on our end. Head coach Gavin Lee spoke about focusing on ourselves and us being the deserving winners.
“It is not so much about the teams around us but it’s about just us really. It is based on today’s performance in terms of us defending the way we did with the direct balls and the way we were calm even though it went to 1-1 still chasing the game towards the end. I think it warranted the result in that sense, so right now it is about focusing on us because we knew we had that head start (in the league standings) and it’s about us maintaining that head start through each game.”
Boris Kopitovic scored two goals, and is one away from beating records set by legends Mirko Grabovac and Alexander Duric to be the top scorer in a single season of the Singapore Premier League. He spoke on his determination to get the team back into the AFC Cup for next season.
“I gave my best today and my focus is always on the game. If you work hard, run for every ball and fight for 90 minutes, the rewards will come. I know I have scored 26 goals, but I don’t want to stop - I want to help the team more, and now, all our focus goes into the next game. We must keep winning if we want to get into that AFC Cup slot.”
Finally, thanks once again to The Stand for joining us all through this season, and we never take that for granted as mentioned by Gavin and Boris.
Gavin : Credits to them, they make the atmosphere and whenever we play at Our Tampines Hub, it is always full of support, and it's always very nice to see. This win is for them, and for the effort they have done following us throughout this season.
Boris : They always stay with us no matter home or away, and they always support us whether we win, lose or draw. I want to say a big thanks to our fans and see you on Saturday at Jalan Besar Stadium!