Updated: Aug 20
Overcast skies greeted us as we made our way to Jurong East Stadium for a crunch tie with Tanjong Pagar United. With a game in hand on the day’s opponents, a win today would put us in good stead to push for 3rd place and qualification in the AFC Cup. Captain Yasir Hanapi and Chris Van Huizen made their returns to the starting lineup while Syed Firdaus Hassan came in for the Covid-stricken Firdaus Kasman.
Ryaan Sanizal also made way for Irwan Shah to take his spot at left back. Before long, it was go-time, and the starting whistle marked the start of what would be an enthralling game of football.
The Jaguars kicked off and immediately sent a long punt up the pitch straight to the head of Blake Ricciuto to make life uncomfortable for us. And unfortunately, it was this direct tactic that led to our undoing in the 2nd minute.
Former Stag Daniel Bennett had a hand in Tanjong Pagar’s first goal, as his lob into the box caused a mix-up which Blake capitalized on by sliding the ball to Shodai Nishikawa. The Japanese midfielder made no mistake, finishing neatly under Syazwan Buhari in goal. 1-0.
We responded well after the goal by controlling possession and making the Jaguars work for the ball. But it was their threat on the counter that nearly proved deadly again in the 10th minute.
Having played themselves out of the Stags’ pressure, Fathullah Rahmat played a ball out to Rusyaidi Salime down the right flank. His early cross would find the head of Jaguar’s top-scorer Reo Nishiguchi who forced a great save from Syazwan. Shodai would pounce on the loose ball but it was Shuya Yamashita who had the better of the encounter - he protected his goal and cleared it off the line.
Syazwan would be called into action again in the 34th minute, as a free kick floated in by Raihan Rahman was knocked on by Faritz Hameed. Irwan Shah, in trying to deflect the ball away, nearly headed into our net, if not for the quick reflexes of Syazwan to palm it away. However, it was from the resulting corner that we conceded our first penalty of the night.
A teasing corner was sent in which we failed to deal with, and Blake’s effort to play it back into the danger zone, unfortunately, caught the arm of Syed Firdaus Hassan. The referee pointed to the spot without hesitation. Up stepped Reo, who stepped up and slotted it past Syazwan. 2-0, and it was looking like a long evening for our Stags.
Despite the setback, in typical Stags fashion, we kept to the game plan and stuck to our brand of football. More possession would find Kyoga Nakamura on the right flank to send a teasing ball into the box. The Jaguars’ defence failed to deal with it, and who else but Boris Kopitovic to poke the ball home, once again putting himself at the top of the SPL scoring charts. 2-1.
As the old adage goes, you can wait ages for a bus before two turn up at once - well, for the Stags, two goals came in just two minutes.
Kyoga would retrieve a loose ball after a blocked free kick and play it into the box. Irfan Najeeb would stretch to keep the ball in play and knock it back into the Tanjong Pagar penalty box. Blake heads it away only for it to land on a powerful attempt by Chris Van Huizen’s right boot. With the help of a deflection, it was sent away from the despairing dive of Zharfan and into the net. 2-2 and The Stand went crazy!
A pulsating 45 minutes was brought to a close and, despite a disastrous start, our Stags went down the tunnel knowing that there was all to play for in the second half, all thanks to their spirited fightback towards the end of the half.
As we walked out for the second half, the figure of Zehrudin ‘Zeko’ Mehmedovic popped into the frame, kitted out and raring to go in place of the impressive Iman Hakim. Straight from the whistle, you could see that Zeko meant business, buzzing around the field, and making life difficult for the Jaguars. This intensity would prove to pay off just 7 minutes into the second half.
Kyoga found Boris on the edge of the box with a neat pass. Yasir in typical fashion made a run into the box anticipating a pass from Boris, who did exactly that. In a carbon copy of the first Tanjong Pagar goal, Yasir slotted the ball under the charging Zharfan. 3-2 and comeback complete!
After being in the lead for the first time this game, it was then a matter of keeping the game under wraps and in control, but also wary of the threat that the Jaguars posed with their direct counter-attacking style. There were a couple of scares afterwards, but nothing to trouble Syazwan.
Our neat possession play fashioned a chance for Zeko to extend our lead, who, with space and time, smashed a shot onto the bar drawing gasps from The Stand. However, just minutes later we would be brought back down to earth.
Irwan Shah was adjudged to have shoved Khairul Nizam onto the floor after a ball over the top of our defense, and upon consultation with his team of officials, the referee pointed to the spot. Reo, for the second time in the tie, stepped up and tucked away the penalty. 3-3 and we were in for a dramatic finish to the game.
Zeko would have a golden chance for the go-ahead goal just three minutes later. A speculative ball over the top from Van Huizen found him through on goal, but a combination of Zharfan and three retreating Jaguar defenders prevented the ball from nestling in the back of the net.
Our top-scoring Montenegrin would have our next chance on goal, after being put through by substitute Taufik Suparno’s clever header from Syazwan’s punt upfield. Pressure from Raihan Rahman was enough to put the ball out for a corner kick. The tie proved to be a testing one for our Stags, and within a minute, an unlikely scorer would make the difference.
After the resulting corner had been cleared, the ball was recycled and found Yasir on the left wing. An in-swinging cross was played in, and Shuya ghosts in to head past Zharfan for his second headed goal of the season. Cue euphoria from the bench, as the Japanese defender runs off to celebrate with our substitutes at the side of the pitch. 4-3.
Even amid the celebration though, Head Coach Gavin Lee was instructing our players on the next mode of action: to focus and defend the lead.
This is what we did for the remainder of the match despite whatever the Jaguars had to throw at us. This was epitomized by a last-ditch tackle from Syed Firdaus to deny Blake what could have been a heart-breaking equalizer.
As the final whistle blew, players from both sides fell to their knees showing what a tremendous effort made trying for the three points. In this battle though, we came up tops and took home the points, edging ever closer to Tanjong Pagar in the table with a game in hand.
A rollercoaster of emotions was on offer during yesterday’s fixture. From disappointment; to joy; to anguish and finally to sheer euphoria. Battles with Tanjong Pagar have always been entertaining ones and this one was no different. We overcame the obstacles, adapted to the adversity and came out with the three points.
Captain Yasir had this to say on the performance, despite what was thrown our way, especially with the second penalty awarded.
“It was a positive reaction from every single one of us. Though it was a controversial call. We stayed calm and continued finding the way to that winning goal. It’s important to have this mentality if we want to be in a good position in the league standings.”
Crucial battles were won especially in midfield, where we started with the Young Bucks of Ong Yu En, Iman Hakim and Syed Firdaus. With Yasir and Kyoga helping them through, it was a game where they had to face up to the test of seasoned veterans like Blake and Mirko, and they passed with flying colours.
Head Coach Gavin Lee accredited the work done since preseason to the squad’s incredible resiliency, and ability to bounce back during games.
“We have put the team under difficult situations in training and in those moments, they have to be able to find solutions to continue trying to play forward and try to win the game. We have had repetitions of those situations in the games we had this season and this helped reinforce the behaviours that were desired in those circumstances. With that being said, it is a credit to the players for wanting to trust what we are doing on the pitch without giving into their emotions. Credit to them also for staying strong in their thinking and being strong despite being 2-0 down.”
With Albirex on the horizon in what could prove a pivotal fixture in the title race, Gavin gave his thoughts as well :
“Games against Albirex are always very fun, very tight and very competitive. I think it will be the same next weekend. They play today against Geylang first, so it gives us a chance to understand if they are changing things around, though we do not expect them to. They are quite consistent with their identity and game plan, so we are looking at how we can continue to hurt them but also reduce their threats in attack.”
All thanks to The Stand who came down to the other side of the island to go through that rollercoaster ride of emotions with us, and we certainly hope that we made your trip worthwhile! We’ll see you next week at the same location, and hopefully, with the same result. Up the Stags!