90 minutes was all that separated us from a place in Saturday’s Singapore Cup Final. 8-1 from the first leg was definitely a score to savour but it was not something we would take for granted. This was evident in a strong lineup named by Head Coach Gavin Lee for the game. There were, however, five changes made, with top scorer Boris Kopitovic a notable Stag to be rested due to his yellow card in the previous leg.
“It will be very foolish of us to be thinking about the final because we are not there yet and anything can happen in football, as I have seen many times in the global game. We are fully focused on tonight’s game and getting the job done.” said Gavin before the match.
He also spoke on the replacements in light of Boris’s place on the bench.
“We got fresh legs in, people that we know that can help contribute to the team, and hopefully that freshness will help us to start and finish the game strong tonight.”
We were also delighted to see our friends at the Wheelchair Rugby Association (Singapore), who also train at the day’s battleground of Toa Payoh Stadium, showing up to lend their support to our push for the finals. In a match that would require all our grit and determination, having them in our corner was a welcome reminder of the mindset that we had to have.
As the players made their way onto the pitch and The Stand made their voices heard, we held our collective breath as a first win in this stadium for this season will definitely boost the confidence heading into the Final on Saturday. Having previously drawn both matches against the Tigers at Toa Payoh Stadium this season, one thing's for certain - Balestier would not make this an easy game.
The main task was simple, and that was to hold off any Balestier attacks and keep them at arm's length. This was made even simpler after just 12 minutes on the clock.
We had pressured the Tigers’ defense into bad giveaways, and Syed Firdaus was a crucial key to this. His great hold-up play led to a teasing cross into the box and Taufik Suparno was on hand to finish, though not without the help of Hairul Syirhan in goal. 0-1 and we could breathe a little with us up 9-1 on aggregate.
The in-form Taufik would nearly get us two ahead, as captain Yasir Hanapi led a counter attack and played the through pass to Taufik who just dragged his shot wide of the post.
Irwan Shah, making his 201st appearance for The Stags, had the next opportunity after great work again by Taufik. But this time, his shot could only sting the palms of Hairul. We were, however, stamping our authority on this game, a callback to our first half played this 2022 season right at this stadium.
We played with the swagger of a team who had won 10 out of the last 12 games in both League and Cup. The passing was crisp and the movement likewise, but we had to be wary of Balestier’s main threats of set-pieces and their three Japanese attackers.
They had a couple chances from those situations, but stout defending and the commanding presence of our guardian in goal, Syazwan Buhari, managed to keep them at bay.
Balestier would have their best chance in the first half when Kuraba Kondo would find himself through on goal. A combination of last ditch defending from Shuya Yamashita and the ever-elite positioning of Syazwan prevented the Tigers from drawing level.
The first half whistle blew and half the job was done. A goal up, and nullifying much of the host’s bite, it was as professional of a performance that you are likely to see, and The Stand were enjoying every minute of it.
Stepping out of the dressing room, Coach Gavin decided to make changes with Young Bucks Joel Chew and Rezza Rezky coming on for Taufik and Yasir, who were getting an early rest after a dominant display. However, as we would remember for in the first game of the season, our hosts are more than capable of a second half comeback.
It was indeed Balestier who started brighter in the half, with Madhu Mohana stealing the ball after Syazwan’s kick. His drive and cross would just find Ryoya Taniguchi, who missed his shot. A warning to the Stags that the Tigers had pride to play for, and would not back down until the very end.
Balestier’s threat nearly became ours when a Kyoga Nakamura free-kick found the head of the rock-solid Irfan Najeeb, but his header sailed just over the bar.
Speaking to that threat, Balestier would nearly equalize just two minutes later when Shuhei Hoshino was sent through on goal. He was thwarted first by Syazwan and then by Irfan who was doing it all at both ends of the pitch, as he completed the challenge and ran away with the ball.
Syazwan was called into action yet again at the 61 minute mark, but this time from the penalty spot. Kyoga and Ryoya were caught in a tussle just inside the box and when the Tigers forward went down, the referee pointed straight to the spot. Being on hot form for penalties recently, you could just feel that Syazwan had that extra bit of confidence standing across Taniguchi. Wouldn’t you know it, he guessed right and pulled off a great penalty save, and from there you just knew that we had this game in the bag.
Our penalty saviour was then brought off a couple minutes later for the ever-ready Danial Iliya who would make his 2nd appearance for the season and his first ever appearance in the Singapore Cup.
Balestier would have a couple more half-chances but proceeded to drag them both wide from Hoshino and substitute Puvan Raj respectively, but at the full-time whistle, Taufik’s first half effort was enough to seal the win and confirm our place in the final alongside Hougang United.
Most would have said that the tie was already done after the first leg, but in typical Stags fashion, we did not allow that thinking to cloud our game. It starts from the top with the coaching team deciding to play a strong side, to the players on the pitch giving it their absolute all.
Despite Boris being rested on the bench, the Stags that were out there showed their top determination in getting the result and sealing that place in the final. One player that shone, however, was the ever-present Syazwan Buhari in goal, with yet another penalty save to add to his collection. Though when speaking to us, he was rather modest regarding his exploits in that department.
“It's down to luck really. I have no tricks - I just pick a side and go for it. It's all luck and I hope that continues for me.”
He also had nothing but good to say to his deputy who came on in the second half.
“Danial has been doing well in training and he deserves to play, and whenever he is called upon he does a good job. His record of not conceding in the minutes he has played is also a good one for him. Two clean sheets in two games!” he said with a smile.
We also managed to catch up with Danial and speak to him about his cameo in the game.
“I am really grateful and happy for the opportunities that the coaches have given to me. Honestly if it weren’t for Syaz(‘s great performance tonight), I don’t think I would have been able to come on, so all credit goes to him.” expressed an equally humble Danial.
Both goalkeepers also gave their assessment on what would be a thrilling final this Saturday, with a key point being that of preparation. First with Syazwan,
“It will definitely be tricky. They are in good form and we will see what we can do to beat them. Right now it is all about recovery and getting ready for the big game.”
And as for Danial,
“Of course Hougang is a great team so we have to be both mentally and physically prepared. We are excited and ready to go defend our Cup.”
Lastly, we had Head Coach Gavin to also give his thoughts on the game, the benefits of being able to give some much earned rest for some of our key players, as well as the upcoming final.
“The result was good, but we could have done better in terms of managing the game. Having said that, getting to the final was our objective and we have accomplished it. Having so many games, especially on such heavy pitch, it was good to rotate for some freshness all around. It was good for Danial to come on at such a moment too, where he was challenged to keep the clean sheet.”
“Now full focus is on recovery and preparation for the final.”
Defending our cup is what we will set out to do. This season has been challenging, but it has also been massively rewarding, and what better way to end it all off than with a 5th Singapore Cup triumph. Hougang will be raring to go as well, with it being their first Singapore Cup final, but The Stags will be more than ready to face up to the challenge. It’s simply in our blood.
To The Stand, we call on you for that very last game of the season. Let’s go forth to Jalan Besar Stadium with pride and paint it Yellow and Black. See you at the Singapore Cup Final!