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Reflections from Our AFC Cup Campaign

Playing continental football is by no means an easy challenge but given Tampines Rovers’ track record in the AFC Cup, the expectation is that Our Stags qualify for the knockout stages. Unfortunately, we have failed to progress to the next round, despite the efforts by the squad.

Suffering consecutive defeats to Piala Indonesia Champions PSM Makassar and Malaysia Cup winners Kuala Lumpur City FC was certainly a bitter pill to swallow. Yet, there were many learning points from both fixtures that cannot be ignored.

The opening fixture against PSM was always going to be a challenge but the first half red card made the task at hand even more difficult. It was, as Tampines Rovers Head Coach Gavin Lee emphasizes, a turning point in the game.

“When you go down to 10-men at the international level, it is always going to be difficult,” shares Gavin.

“When you’re going up against difficult opposition, who are so quick, and you have one less man to cover the spaces behind and out wide, it is a challenge. We did alter our game plan after the red card but we conceded too early in the second half and that just gave PSM the momentum, which made it more difficult from then on.”

Yet, despite the bitter defeat, Gavin was proud of the team’s spirit and efforts.

“But having said that, I can only be so proud of the players that completed the game and that didn’t give up. We still believed we had one or two more goals and we kept trying for it. As a coach, I couldn’t ask for more. It is a good reflection of the team’s character.”

One reason the team gave it its all was because of the immense support from The Stand, which cannot be understated. A sizeable contingent of our faithful made the trip to Kuala Lumpur and sang their hearts out as they spurred Our Stags on even after the final whistle. In fact, if you had been catching the fixture on ELEVEN Sports, you would have heard the very audible chants till the final whistle.

Furthermore, throngs of fans gathered at Our Tampines Hub (OTH) as the fixture was live screened on the familiar gigantic monitor in the Festive Plaza.

Our Tampines Hub buzzed with excitement as The Stand cheered loudly after Mehmedović’s strike and voiced their disgruntlement whenever the referee called decisions against us. The inability to travel to Kuala Lumpur did not stop sections of our fans from showing Tampines Rovers their undeniable support. It was a sight to see indeed.

Theoretically, Tampines Rovers still had a shot to qualify for the next round but the KL City fixture was a must-win game and Our Stags would require other results to swing to their favour. Regardless, Coach Gavin remained optimistic about our chances.

“We are glass half-full kind of club and we see this fixture as the first part of a two-chapter AFC Cup journey,” mentions Gavin. “The first chapter did not end so well but we still got one more chapter to go. It is down to us to define our ending. At Tampines Rovers, when there is chance, there is hope, and we never give up.”

The subsequent defeat fixture against Kuala Lumpur City FC was truly a game of two halves.

Conceding two goals in the first half against The City Boys made our job more difficult. Nevertheless, Boris Kopitović‘s superb header at the end of a sublime cross by our very own Young Buck, 19-year-old Andrew Aw who started the game for us, provided Our Stags and The Stand much needed hope heading into the break. The second 45-minute period was certainly a different tale to the first half.

“We got a lot better in the second half and that’s because we limited their transitions,” explains our Head Coach. “In the first half, we were a little bit rushed in our decisions but in the second half, we did a lot better in terms of progressing the ball further up the pitch.”

Still, despite our successful efforts in nullifying the KL City attack, we failed to break through the host side’s defence in the second half. It was another harsh defeat but while our AFC Cup campaign may have concluded earlier than we would have liked, there are many takeaways for Our Stags.

“We didn’t give a good account of ourselves this time around,” indicates Gavin. “We have done relatively better in the last few campaigns and unfortunately this time, we did not meet our objectives which was to primarily qualify from the group. I think we really exposed ourselves in terms of game management these two games, and that is something we need to improve upon. We have young heads at the back but that is no excuse - I hope for them, and hope for the team that we learn these lessons quickly in time for our next game (against Albirex Niigata) in a few days time. We need to think about the next game, next action and next performance.”

For Our Young Bucks, this experience provided an integral lesson for their development, as Gavin underscores.

“This international exposure and such experiences will only add to their toolbox and references in their heads. Hopefully the experiences and knowledges they gain from such exposures will help guide their future behavior and performances. The players need to be overloaded (to improve) and today, obviously, the players were indeed overloaded, which is a good opportunity for them to get better.”

We sincerely thank The Stand for their overwhelming support during both fixtures. Our fans helped to fuel the team when the going was getting tough and we will bounce back stronger.

We go again this Monday as we head down to Jurong East Stadium to take on Albirex Niigata (S), and we will certainly utilize the lessons learned from our AFC Cup adventure.

Come On You Stags!

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