Derby fixtures feel different don’t they? League form is chucked out the window when bitter rivals cross swords. The Eastern Derby is no different but yesterday’s fixture was certainly unique.
Together with Our Fan Engagement Partners, Canadian Pizza, we celebrated Canadian Pizza Day in style with various events, with fans receiving co-branded thundersticks to bring the noise in support of our Stags, all while enjoying fun activities on social media with great prizes, as well as receiving vouchers providing exclusive discounts just for The Stand.
We left things too little too late against Tanjong Pagar United in our previous fixture and Our Stags knew that they could not afford to waste their chances in the final third this time.
Furthermore, this fixture was important in setting the right tone for the upcoming AFC Cup campaign. In a matter of days, Tampines Rovers will be taking on the likes of Piala Indonesia champions PSM Makassar and Malaysia Cup winners Kuala Lumpur City. These imminent fixtures are by no means a walk in the park and Our Stags knew that getting a positive result against our Eastern foes would only help in providing some much-needed momentum.
A bumper crowd on Derby Day, bouncing back from the previous defeat, and setting the tone for an important continental campaign - the stage was indeed set for Our Stags to demonstrate their prowess. As the referee blew his whistle, we pounced into action.
As one would expect, the Eagles were out for blood but especially so after suffering defeat to us in the first round. Tampines Rovers carried the bragging rights and Our Stags were determined to retain them. A tense opening minutes ensued as both sides jostled to gain the lead.
Syazwan Buhari was in excellent form as he repeatedly denied several attempts by the Geylang offense. Our Stags have unfortunately failed to keep a clean sheet this season and denying the opposition a goal was at the forefront of Syazwan's mind. Our custodian demonstrated his quick reflexes with a flurry of saves, including blocking a ninth-minute snapshot by Sime Zuzul that seemed destined for goal.
Then, tragedy struck when our promising midfield maestro, Ong Yu En, had to be brought off due to an injury. Yasir Hanapi was brought on as a replacement and Our Club Captain played with renewed vigor after recently returning to the national team set-up. He immediately galvanized the attack from the middle of the park.
Minutes later, Yasir would make his mark. Finding space down the left wing, Zehrudin Mehmedović (in typical fashion), floated in a superb cross into the box that landed precisely to our Skipper who volleyed it into the back of the net to give Our Stags the lead. 1-0 to Tampines Rovers.
The goal only elevated the hostilities between both teams and fans were reminded why the Eastern Derby is arguably one of the most tense in the Singapore Premier League. The Eagles tried to claw back with sheer intensity but our defence easily kept Geylang at bay.
As the referee called for half time, Our Stags headed into the locker room with the much-needed lead. Some have labeled us “Comeback Kings” this season but Our Stags reminded everyone that we can place ourselves at an advantageous position heading into the break. The match was ours for the taking and Our Stags knew they needed to guard against complacency to ensure they clinched all three points.
The Second Half
Both sides picked off from where they last left off and the tense battle for possession ensued. Holding onto a slender 1-0 lead meant that the Eagles could always stage a comeback. As such, Our Stags braced themselves for a Geylang barrage while also mounting attacks of their own to clip the Eagles’ wings.
Our towering Montenegrin, “Big Bad” Boris Kopitović was experiencing an unusual goal drought. Boris had previously scored in 6 consecutive games but failed to register a goal in the last two fixtures. With the AFC Cup around the corner, he knew he needed a goal in this particular fixture to give him a confidence boost. He came close in the 55th minute with his low driven shot seeming certain to end up in the back of the net but Zaiful Nizam kept his effort out. Boris continued his hunt for a goal as the Tampines defence was peppered by Geylang attacks.
New Geylang right back Tajeli Salamat was close to drilling his shot past Syazwan Buhari. Yet, some expert positioning by our 18-year-old hot prospect Adam Reefdy meant that his shot was deflected out for a corner in the 62nd minute.
Three minutes later, Chris van Huizen and Ryaan Sanizal were brought on for Andrew Aw and Adam to shore up the defence as we remained resolute to clinch our first clean sheet of the season.
Not long after, Irwan Shah and Taufik Suparno were also brought in for Amirul Haikal and Firdaus Kasman. Some may have overlooked this point in the fixture but it was truly an interesting spectacle in the match. We fielded several of our Young Bucks in our starting XI - 5 to be exact, against the Eagles. Andrew Aw, Amirul Haikal, Ong Yu En, Adam Reefdy and Irfan Najeeb all started this fixture and our national team stalwarts (barring Syazwan Buhari) were all on the bench. By the 79th minute, we were finishing the fixture with one of the most experienced sets of Our Stags.
Geylang were clutching at straws as they tried everything they could to salvage a draw but Our Stags had learned their lesson from previous fixtures. They nullified the Geylang attempts to push forward. Huzaifah Aziz desperately tried to win the ball in a tussle with Chris van Huizen and elbowed Our Wing Patroller in the head. Unsurprisingly, he was given his marching orders by the referee and with Geylang down to 10 men, it was time for Our Stags to capitalize on the situation.
Two minutes later, Chris exacted revenge against his former side and reminded them where his heart laid as he picked up a loose ball and found Boris near the edge of the box. It was a question of when, not if, Boris would score this match and in the 84th minute, he executed a brilliant finesse effort that beat Zaiful Nizam. It was Boris’s 13th goal of the campaign as he maintained his lead in the SPL goal scoring charts. 2-0 to the Stags.
As the referee blew his final whistle, the Stags earned a much-needed victory. The Eagles' wings were clipped as Tampines Rovers retained bragging rights. We have secured 2 wins already against Geylang this campaign and Our Stags will be determined to make it 4 league victories come the end of the season.
Mixing youth and experience, as well as daring to do things differently are traditional characteristics of Tampines Rovers. We started five U23 players and entrusted them with the responsibility to keep the Eagles at bay. This was certainly not an easy task for Our Young Bucks but working in tandem with the more experienced players, Our Stags did brilliantly.
The performance against Geylang captures what Our Head Coach Gavin has routinely reiterated:
“When you’re good enough, you’re old enough”
This victory was important for another reason. With zero clean sheets this season and naysayers lamenting the young defence, Our Stags silenced critics with their defensive performance. Obviously, this was not achieved overnight as Gavin rightfully points out.
“Getting the win before the AFC Cup certainly boosts our morale but, as everyone in this team recognizes, it's been a long time coming for us to claim a clean sheet,” shares Our Head Coach. “I am very happy because everyone has been working extremely hard so getting the clean sheet is really good.”
While the team was marvelous in shutting down Geylang’s offense, the fans were truly Our 12th Man in this Eastern Derby - something that does not go unnoticed.
“The atmosphere was absolutely electric with the crowd cheering us on,” mentions Gavin. “It would have been a lot harder without their energy and support. They played a crucial part in helping us secure three points and the clean sheet.”
On the atmosphere, our Fan Engagement Partner, Canadian Pizza added, "It was an amazing match which coincided nicely with the success of Canadian Pizza's fan engagement event. I'm sure the fans enjoyed the 2 lovely goals along with the prizes they won, and we are looking forward to a successful season - Tampines Rovers are looking good!"
Tampines Rovers ended an exciting Canadian Pizza Day as triumphant Eastern Derby victors.
In other words, The East Remains Yellow.