After a hard-fought defeat last match against Albirex, The Stags were keen to go again in a relentless rush of fixtures as we now took on the Tigers, Balestier Khalsa FC.
The match had a rather positive outlook - we gained 3 points on our last time out against Balestier and we had some time to regroup after our AFC Cup matches and the gruelling fixture at Jurong East.
Nevertheless, the Tigers are always in the game when featuring attacking talent such as Ryoya Taniguchi, Kuraba Kondo and Captain Shuhei Hoshino, and we had to make sure that we snuffed out those threats as we entered a blazing Toa Payoh Stadium yesterday evening.
We started out with a high-pressure style, and did not give any space to work with for the opposition. As Balestier tried to retaliate with their own press, the team found some excellent outlet passes to escape the press. It looked, however, as a nervy game, with both teams cautious, knowing that a result would be important as points are at a premium with how tight the league currently is.
In the 6th minute, however, we paid the price as two weak clearance attempts meant Balestier midfielder Ignatius Ang had an attacking opportunity, first with a nice turn, then with a lucky bobble. Though we had bodies to cover the attacking angles, he produced a powerful strike that put the ball cleanly through everybody into the roof of the net. The scoreline read 0-1 to Balestier, and we had much to do.
The Tigers piled on the pressure, and at the 10th minute mark found a pass to an open Ryoya Taniguchi, whose fine snap-shot outside the box produced an equally fine save from our man between the sticks, Syazwan Buhari.
On the attacking end, we frequently found Boris Kopitovic, operating on the shoulders of the penalty box and backing up his marker. This gave our team some options - in the 18th minute, a wicked Boris shot was deflected, a trend that will continue throughout the half as Balestier commit bodies back to block out our attempts on goal.
We found perhaps our best chance to score in the 26th minute, a clever pass to Taufik Suparno who was through on goal, but his unselfish layoff was unfortunately intercepted once again by a spirited Balestier defence.
Tragedy befell in the 38th minute, as our attacking pressure was halted due to a Balestier corner kick. The resulting corner was well cleared, but Kuraba Kondo’s second offering into the box proved to be more dangerous, though cleared by Stags defender Irfan Najeeb. The ball then found its way to Shuhei Hoshino, who struck an incredible low driven shot that was just out of reach for Syazwan. 0-2 to Balestier.
Our last attempt to salvage something from the half came from a corner kick that resulted in a clean header for Irfan Najeeb. Unfortunately, his attempt that beat the keeper, and seemed destined for the far post was cleared off the line by Hoshino.
With our team looking disjointed for the 45 minutes, it was clear in the first half that we were not playing Tampines football. Despite that, The Stand never lost belief in the team, cheering and supporting non-stop from the stands. Will the next half offer a comeback?
Into the Second Half, we looked more confident, with our spacing more indicative of the style we came to expect of Tampines Rovers. We struck soon after the whistle was blown - Irwan Shah driving the ball up the field, and laying it off to ‘Big Bad’ Boris, whose brilliant 1-2 with the returning Zehrudin Mehmedovic beat the whole Balestier backline. Shot sunk, we get one back.
Our pressures and quick counter attacks seemed to stun the Tigers, and we dominated the start of the second half. A pair of substitutions came to bolster our options, with Chris Van Huizen and Shameer Aziq brought on in the 60th minute. Not long after, we got the equalizer that seemed oh-so-imminent.
A sublime pass from our Serbian magician Mehmedovic found the dazzling run off Captain Yasir Hanapi, and a simple combination play with Boris meant the ball evaded the Tiger’s defence, leading to a free shot by Taufik Suparno for a goal. His 4th of the campaign, and breaking a 9-match drought without a goal, Taufik collected the ball from the back of the net and ran it to the center of the pitch. It’s now 2-2, and work is yet to be done to find the winner.
Multiple attempts at goal ensued, with another gorgeous link-up from Taufik and Mehmedovic looking like we’re ready to take the win. Alas, though we came very close, the winner never came, and we were forced to take just a single point from this encounter, a mirror image of what happened on Opening Day against the same team, and on the very same ground.
The result marked a very familiar story for Our Stags, and one that is a mirror image from the Opening Day fixture where we scored first. This time, our comeback was consistent with our desire to claw back at seemingly lost games.
“Definitely, it is a bit disappointing to once again have to come back from behind, but it takes a lot of desire and belief to come back from 2 goals down.” commented Shameer Aziq, who earned a feature off the bench and contributed to our comeback.
Though the chances kept coming for us in both halves, we were simply more clinical in the second, and this sentiment was mirrored by Head Coach Gavin Lee.
“In the first half, we got into some good situations to create good scoring chances, but we didn’t take that step (of scoring them). At half time we addressed that, and I thought that the boys stuck to the plan even better, and we created a lot more opportunities to be able to score the 2 goals.”
Though the win eluded us today, we are always appreciative of The Stand who created a great atmosphere in Toa Payoh Stadium for us, and who showed their support even after the game, that our players graciously returned with handshakes and kind words.
‘From me and from the team, we are deeply appreciative of all their support. We have some top fans (here at the club), and hearing them cheer us on through the second half was definitely the boost that we needed to take that step forward.” remarked Head Coach Gavin Lee.
This sentiment was also shared by Shameer, who said “I would like to say thank you to the fans, who, no matter if we’re at home or away, their support for us has always been tip top.”
All eyes are now on our next match against Hougang United in a dramatic mid-table clash. We hope to see you there as we bring the fight to the North-East!