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Righting The Wrongs Of Matchday 1: Tampines Rovers 2-1 Balestier Khalsa

As the SPL anthem echoed throughout the ground, and the players marched onto the pitch, the tragic memory of the opening day 2-2 draw was certainly replaying in their minds. After an impressive first half, we allowed the Tigers to claw back and salvage a 2-2 draw. Mistakes were made in our first fixture of the season but they cannot be repeated.


Of course, that is often easier said than done. After all, Balestier Khalsa are certainly a team full of surprises. Our Stags knew that with the Tigers' recent spate of form and following the first round draw, they needed to guard against complacency. After clipping the wings of our feathered adversaries in their last fixture before the break, the Tigers were on the hunt for yet another victory at Our Tampines Hub.

Obviously, it did not help that we were missing several key members of the squad. Ryaan Sanizal and Irfan Najeeb were flying the Singapore flag high in Vietnam. Both Stags featured in the 2-2 Draw against the Laos National Team. While we are proud that Ryaan and Irfan were representing the nation, they were crucial members of our backline. Likewise, we missed Marc Ryan Tan and Firdaus Kasman through injuries.


Nonetheless, other members of the squad stepped up to the plate and as our dear Head Coach has frequently reiterated, if you are good enough, you are old enough. Hence, we unsurprisingly decked the squad with our promising Young Bucks, entrusting them with the responsibility to deliver when called upon. We fielded our young sentinel Adam Reefdy (who was handed a start on his birthday no less) to start in the heart of defence alongside our rock in the back Shuya Yamashita. Likewise, the Tampines Rovers bench was filled with several members of our U-21 contingent, including 16-year-old wonderkid Caelan Cheong.

As the players stepped out onto the pitch, they knew that winning was in our DNA - they needed to right the wrongs of Matchday 1 and get the job done.


The First Half


The match commenced with Tampines holding much of the possession but our Stags struggled to break the deadlock. Then in the 15th minute, the deadlock was broken but unfortunately, it wasn't Our Stags that gained the lead.


Syazwan Buhari managed to block Darren Teh's low driven cross. The rebound seemed as if it was about to fall to Hari McCoy but Chris Van Huizen prevented that from happening with a crucial challenge. Unfortunately, that caused the ball to trickle to Gareth Low who instantly knocked it into the back of the net to make it 1-0 to Balestier. It was certainly disappointing to concede early but with more than 75 minutes left on the clock, Our Stags maintained their focus and orchestrated wave after wave of attacks.


After knocking on Balestier's doors several times, we eventually broke through. Our midfield maestro Kyoga Nakamura executed a delicious lob towards Boris Kopitović and our towering Montenegrin flicked the ball with his head towards the path of Zehrudin "Zeko" Mehmedović, who volleyed it past the Balestier Khalsa custodian and into the back of the net in the 32nd minute. We needed to equalize before the break and the link-up play between Boris, Kyoga and Zeko was a joy to watch.

We tried to gain the lead before half time but we could not claim another goal. Overturning early deficits has become a Tampines specialty of late but Our Stags knew that they needed to regroup and give their all in the second half to come away with a win.


The Second Half


The second half commenced with Iman Hakim finally making his first appearance of the season after coming on for Ong Yu En. Injuries had plagued Iman early on in the season but he finally had the opportunity to help make a positive impact. As the referee blew his whistle, a midfield tussle between both sides ensued but Our Stags gained control of the ball and mounted an offensive.

We were dealt a massive blow when Our Skipper Yasir Hanapi had to be brought off in the 51st minute after receiving a nasty challenge. Andrew Aw was brought on to inject fresh pace while Kyoga Nakamura was handed the armband in Yasir's stead.

Nearing the hour mark, Our Stags earned a dangerous freekick near the edge of the box. It was a prime opportunity for Tampines Rovers to clinch the lead. Zeko may have been lining up for a shot but all eyes in the stadium were fixated on Our No. 9. Big Bad Boris scored two sensational goals from set-pieces against Young Lions in the previous fixture and he was determined to continue his fine goalscoring form.


This time around, however, a giant was literally standing in his way. Ensar Brunčević was guarding the far end of the Balestier wall. Boris knew he had to be creative to beat the gargantuan defender and so, he drilled a low driven shot that whizzed beneath Ensar's legs and straight into the bottom corner of the Balestier goal. This marked Boris's 12th goal in 8 games for the Stags and it doesn't seem like he is going to stop scoring anytime soon.



It was now up to the Stags to score another goal and hold the fort. Irwan Shah was brought on to add fresh legs to our backline and replaced Adam Reedy, who did well to nullify the Balestier forwards. As the match was reaching its conclusion, tensions flared up between Our Stags and the Balestier players as both teams were determined to get away with a victory.


In the dying embers of the fixture, we made a double change. Shameer Aziq and Ali Manaf came on for Chris van Huizen and Taufik Suparno. This marked Shameer's first game since returning with us, and Ali's second appearance for Tampines Rovers, after making his first-ever professional appearance against Young Lions in the previous fixture. Both players knew that they had to carry their weight to see this game through. Ali made an instant impact, drawing a foul and slowing the tempo of the game to keep the Tigers at bay.


Thankfully, the fortress held strong and when the referee blew the final whistle, we walked away as 2-1 victors.


Reflections


After the 2-2 draw on the opening matchday, our Head Coach Gavin Lee felt that Our Stags certainly did well to bounce back following a relatively poor first half but there is certainly room for improvement.


"We recognized that our press wasn't good enough and while we were in possession, we weren't good enough," shares Gavin. "At halftime, we looked through the footage together and we sorted it out. The message was to stay calm because we knew that we had the goals in us but it was disappointing again because we could not keep a clean sheet."


The fixture also marked Iman Hakim's return to the first team foray and the skilful midfielder was ecstatic to clock some minutes of competitive action.


"It feels good to be playing again and more importantly, it feels great to get a win today at home," mentions Iman. "I've been giving my best during the training sessions and I am really happy that I could do my part in today's victory."


Kyoga was handed the captain's armband when Yasir had to be substituted off in the 51st minute and the midfield general who played an integral role in the equalizer reflected on wearing the armband again.

"The armband may feel light but whenever I wear it, it feels heavy because I am shouldering a lot of responsibility," explains Kyoga. "Tampines Rovers is a club with a rich history and many great leaders, including Yasir, have put on this armband. So, I knew I had to do my best."


It was an evening where Tampines Rovers truly showed how the squad has grown from the opening day 2-2 draw. Fielding an even younger starting eleven this time around, we emerged with the three points and continued our unbeaten run at our fortress, Our Tampines Hub.


We hope to see you at our next fixture, which will prove to be another cracker of a match as we play Lion City Sailors at home on May 21st, 2022.




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