With every team in Group B of the Singapore Cup having a chance of going through, qualification to the next stage was always going to be a real challenge. Even after winning the two previous fixtures, our place in the semi-finals was not yet secured. Our Stags had to deliver in this final Group Stage fixture and went into it knowing what was required against a top Hougang United side.
The Cheetahs demolished our Eastern Derby Rivals in their last fixture and, with qualification to the next round a real possibility, were going to do whatever it takes to claim three points. Yet, Our Stags were looking to prevent Hougang United from claiming another Eastern win.
The Tampines Rovers players walked onto the pitch with confidence, ever-determined to remind our opponents why we’re the defending Singapore Cup champions and do the necessary to secure their spot in the semi-finals. Game on.
Other teams have often struggled in Hougang Stadium’s muddy pitch but Our Stags managed to assert their influence after the opening 15 minutes. Bombarding forward, our Goal Machine Boris Kopitović tried to score after a defense splitting pass from Zehrudin Mehmedovic, but against 2 Hougang defenders and pressure from Zainol Gulam, he could only watch his shot get deflected behind for a corner kick.
Our Stags were repeatedly denied but never took their foot off the pedal. The Tampines offensive barrages continued, but our final passes were mostly intercepted by alert Hougang defending. At the 29-minute mark though, we thought that we made our breakthrough.
An inswinging free-kick from Mehmedovic found Ryaan Sanizal, who rose highest to head the ball towards Shuya Yamashita, who thumped his header home into goal. The central defensive duo have forged a solid partnership this season, much to the dismay of opposition attackers, and seemed to once again be using their telepathic connection, this time on the attacking end. However, the referee adjudged a foul happening during the build-up, scratching out what would have been our opening goal.
At the opposite end, Tampines Rovers effectively nullified the Hougang attacks, and our opposition mostly found success with their resulting set-pieces. Despite their tender ages, it was again Ryaan Sanizal and Shuya Yamashita who displayed real maturity to deal with the flurry of crosses that were drilled into the Tampines Rovers penalty box, supported by the supporting runs of a shuttling Irfan Najeeb.
It was certainly a tight first 45 minutes and unsurprisingly, the scores remained level at the break. As it stood, both teams at Hougang Stadium would advance into the Semi-Finals, but as Our Stags headed to the dressing room, they knew the job was far from over.
Hougang started the half brightly, culminating in a cleared set-piece that fell to Kristijan Krajcek, who unleashed a powerful strike that swerved away from the right goalpost.
It would be a sign of things to come, as, after 53 minutes, the deadlock was finally broken and it was Hougang that gained the lead through a Sahil Suhaimi header. 1-0 down but Our Stags knew they could not let up, as Group B, with 3 teams at 6 points each was now as tight as it gets.
Despite the stifling Hougang defence, we certainly had moments where our true class shone. At the 58-minute mark, our tidy back-to-front build up play found a smart run by Amirul Haikal into the open space left in the wing. His pass found Taufik Suparno, who selflessly fashioned a pass for Boris Kopitovic to take a shot that would just end up wide of the right post.
In the latter part of the second half, we faced the onslaught of a Cheetahs offense that was firing on all cylinders, and had to be sharp to nullify the threat presented. Though, such is the quality of Hougang’s attacking players that some chances were simply undefendable - namely, a set-piece shot from way outside by Krajcek that just about skimmed the top of the post.
At the 84-minute mark, we fashioned what would prove to be another rare attacking opportunity through a classic Yasir Hanapi set piece. The captain sent a beautiful ball into the box which met the head of Boris Kopitovic, whose flick-on sent the ball on a path destined for the late run of a marauding Ryaan Sanizal. Unfortunately, he could not connect fully with the ball on this occasion and the ball was sent just wide.
The final whistle soon sounded and marked the end of our final Singapore Cup Group Stage game - a narrow defeat that we could certainly take a lot of lessons from.
Though the defeat was certainly a stinging one that marked the end of our 10-match unbeaten streak, we can take a silver lining from the game - our run of fantastic performances means we still finished top of Group B, ahead in goal difference against Hougang United.
“It was a really difficult situation as we needed to win these kinds of games, but it was good that we still advanced (as top of the group). The next 2 games will be very important - we must try to be Singapore Cup Champions.” said Shuya, who, when he joined us at the start of the year, declared his intentions to help us attain a championship.
We also caught up with the team's Wing Patroller, Amirul Haikal, who echoed Shuya’s sentiments, but also saw big lessons to take into our next 2 games against Balestier Khalsa.
“This match was certainly a reality check, and it was a good reminder that we have to rise above all and give our 110%. We now know what to do (to improve upon today’s game), and if we want to remain as (reigning Singapore Cup) Champions, we cannot blame any external circumstances - that’s not what champions are made of” said a reflecting Amirul.
Looking ahead, our matches against a resurgent Balestier side will not be easy, but Syed Firdaus, who was a crucial part of the team’s midfield on both ends of the field today, remains optimistic about the challenges to come.
“Any Semi-Final will surely be challenging, but we’ll give our best in each of the games. We are capable of more than (what tonight’s result showed), and we’ll move forward into the next game to prove this.”
One common point shared by the players was clear : the importance of The Stand, and Hougang Stadium was definitely ringing with the familiar voices of fans that have been supporting us through our journey all year long. When asked whether Syed hoped to see the fans at the next game, he had only one thing to say.
“I hope to see them every game, man!”
Catch Syed and the rest of our Stags when we return Home to Our Tampines Hub on the 11th of November as we take on Balestier Khalsa in the first leg of the 2022 Singapore Cup Semi-Finals. We’ll see you then!