The bitter experience of our mid-week fixture against Tanjong Pagar United was fresh in the minds of our Stags. Yes, we may have come away with a point but losing a 3-0 lead truly stung and the Stags were thoroughly disappointed with the scoreline. This week, our Stags were on a mission to be better. They aimed to learn from their errors and were primed to forge ahead.
Yet, our task at hand was made all the more difficult as Tampines Rovers played bitter rivals, Albirex Niigata (S).
In many ways, this fixture symbolized the clash of Singapore football titans, with two of Singapore's most successful league sides set for battle. Tampines Rovers currently lead the charts with 5 league titles under their belt while White Swans narrowly trail behind us with 4 championships. Nevertheless, our Stags knew that they needed to be at their very best against the White Swans.
The match kicked off exactly at 8:30 but no one was expecting the roller-coaster of a first half that we had.
The First Half
The opening minutes of the fixture were characterized by both teams trying to break through and nick an early goal and after eight minutes, the deadlock was broken. Unfortunately for our Stags and the Stand, it was Albirex that took the lead through Kodai Tanaka. The Japanese forward was in the race for the SPL golden boot alongside Boris Kopitović. His eight-minute strike meant he was once again joint-top scorer alongside our towering Montenegrin [at least at the time]. 1-0 to Albirex.
Four minutes later, Kan Kobayashi's effort seemed destined to hit the back of the net but our custodian Syazwan Buhari pulls off an incredible save to deny the Albirex playmaker a goal. However, Albirex doubled their lead from the ensuing corner through Jun Kobayashi who capitalized on some scrappy defending to make it 2-0 in the 13th minute.
Many neutrals would have written Tampines off at this point but never write off the Stags. We were 2-0 down but we were never out.
The White Swans piled on the pressure, trying their best to rake in the goals. Kazuaki Yoshinaga's men were well aware that Tampines Rovers had the capacity to overcome this deficit but despite their chances, our Stags kept them at bay.
We needed someone to take the game by the scruff of its neck and stage a much-needed comeback and in the 29th minute, it was none other than our talisman, Kyoga Nakamura, who stepped up to the plate. Kyoga nutmegs Daichi Omori near the edge of the box and whizzes past the Albirex defender, who is forced to bring our midfield maestro down in the penalty box. The referee points to the spot and Boris duly converts from the spot kick. The scoreline read 2-1 and with only a one-goal deficit, the comeback was on.
It wasn't long before our Stags were on the scoresheet once again.
Six minutes later, Zehrudin Mehmedović picked Boris out with a brilliant pass and the Tampines No. 9 drills a power shot from an acute angle into the back of the net. Scoring with his left leg this time round, Boris reminded us all how proficient he was with both feet.
The brace meant that he restored his lead in the goal-scoring charts - 9 goals in 6 games is an impressive tally. While it may be early days, you can't deny that Boris is on fire. The scoreline read 2-2. The Stags had come back from behind to equalize but they were far from over.
In the 45th minute, some excellent pressing by Boris forced Albirex keeper Takahiro Koga to pass the ball to Kan Kobayashi who was surrounded by veteran players Yasir Hanapi and Firdaus Kasman. Using their years of experience, Yasir immediately intercepted the ball from the Albirex no. 10. This allowed Firdaus to claim possession, and the midfield engine finally registers his first official goal for Tampines Rovers since returning to the club for his fourth spell. 3-2.
As the referee called for halftime, our Stags had done well to gain the lead but following their previous fixture, they knew that the job was far from over. The break allowed the team to regroup and prime themselves for the second half proceedings.
The Second Half
As the referee blew his whistle to signal the second half, our Stags picked up from where they left off. Boris Kopitovic came close to bagging his hattrick mere minutes after the restart. His 48th-minute strike beat Koga but it ricocheted off the woodwork much to the relief of the White Swans and the Albirex faithful.
Syazwan Buhari had been beaten twice before but that only emboldened him to prevent other goals. He was doing whatever he can to save any shot that came his way. Our Stags were playing some decent football and putting on a much better performance than we did against the Jaguars.
At the hour mark, we made our first two changes of the night. Our Young Bucks, 19-year-old Andrew Aw and 18-year-old Ong Yu En, were tasked with seeing out the fixture as they came on for Chris van Huizen and Firdaus Kasman. This was indeed a special moment. Both Chris and Firdaus began their professional careers at Tampines Rovers and after several stints elsewhere, have returned home. In many ways, this substitution symbolized the passing of batons to a new generation of Stags.
Throughout the second half, Albirex Niigata (S) unleashed a barrage of attacks and after several attempts, they finally broke through. Daichi Omori picks up a loose ball and swings it into the middle of the box. His cross bounces off the ground and flies towards goal forcing Syazwan Buhari to pull off an amazing save. However, Syazwan's block saw the ball land to Tadanari Lee and the former Japanese international equalized to make it 3-3 in the 66th minute.
Some 5 minutes later, another tragedy struck when Ryaan Sanizal suffered a terrible knock and had to be stretchered out. We made a double change at this juncture, bringing on Adam Reefdy for the injured Ryaan and Marc Ryan Tan for Taufik Suparno. 17-year-old Adam had done well against Tanjong Pagar United and he was called to replicate those performances against the arguably tougher White Swans.
On the other hand, 20-year-old Marc had scored a brilliant goal against Hougang after coming on as a sub a few weeks ago. He certainly had the attacking quality to cause issues for the White Swans. In the dying embers of the fixture, Marc came close to scoring as well but his shot just goes over the woodwork. It was certainly heartbreaking for the winger but he will certainly bounce back from this episode.
As the referee called for full time, the scoreline once again reflected 3-3.
We may have drawn 3-3 for the second consecutive time but as our Head Coach Gavin Lee remarks, it was a better performance in many regards.
"For today's game, we were slow to reach our 100% unlike Albirex. I think that was clear for everyone to see," shares Gavin. "I think the one less day of rest did have an impact on the team but due credit has to be given to the players. They weren't thinking about the previous goal but thinking about the next action to take."
Nevertheless, Gavin does point out that the Stags need to be working on their defensive organization.
"We should not be conceding goals like that and now we will finally have time to work on defending in the box because the simplest solution to gaining three points is keeping clean sheets."
His points were echoed by Kyoga Nakamura, who relished the opportunity to play against his former side.
"I was glad that we scored three but I am disappointed that we conceded three as well," remarks Kyoga. "We will certainly work on our defence and we do our best."
Both Gavin and Kyoga also expressed their gratitude towards The Stand, consisting of the fan groups, as well as all Tampines fans who have been turning up to support our Stags.
"Thank you for always supporting us," mentions Kyoga. "I want to make the fans smile and I want to enjoy wins together with our fans. I hope they continue supporting us as we aim to return stronger in our next match."
Similarly, Gavin mentions, "8:30 pm is very late and we really appreciate the support despite the late kickoff. We were 2-0 down early in the game but they continued to spur us on till the final whistle. Their voices definitely help us and we will continue to try our best and develop the team to reach greater heights."
We will learn from these back to back draws and will be #PRIMED to forge ahead. Our next fixture will be against Young Lions on the 20th of April and we will once again play at home - at Our Tampines Hub. We hope to see you there as we take this break to come back stronger!