In our previous outing, we ended up suffering a narrow 1-0 loss to Hougang United but we managed to progress to the next round after doing enough in our first two group stage fixtures.
Yet, this time, Tampines Rovers knew they couldn’t just do enough, as a two-legged Semi-Final also meant a trip to Balestier’s ground of Toa Payoh Stadium. Sure, we had maintained an unbeaten record against Balestier Khalsa in the Singapore Premier League but this was a team brimming with confidence. Many had written off the Tigers when the groups were drawn but they silenced their critics. Our Stags certainly possessed the pedigree to overcome a resilient Balestier side but needed to muster their signature grit and determination to do so.
Having tasted success in 2019, Our Stags knew that they were one step closer to clinching the Cup yet again. On a night where we looked to live up to our traditions, we drew another familiar tradition of our own to a close - that of playing a professional wrestling-inspired theme song before kickoff. Fittingly, our players, the reigning and defending champions of the Singapore Cup, marched out to the entrance music of Ric Flair, the 16x World Champion, in our final Home game of 2022.
As the referee blew the first whistle, we knew the task at hand - to play our brand of Tampines football, and get as many goals as possible past what would surely be a stubborn Balestier defense.
The action didn’t take very long to start. Receiving a fine ball from Joel Chew down the right flank, Yasir Hanapi drilled a delicious cross into the middle of the box. The cross was cleared by the Balestier defence but the ball found its way to Taufik Suparno, who instinctively volleyed it from the edge of the box and into the back of the net. The 26th-minute wonder strike was Taufik’s 14th of the campaign and would prove to have opened the floodgates for the evening. 1-0 to Tampines.
Seconds after the restart, Tampines were up 2-0. 19-year-old Ong Yu En was the architect this time round as he executed a well-crafted pass that met Yasir Hanapi to sneak past the Balestier backline. Our skipper duly buried the ball into the back of the net to make it a quick fire double, and pulled out the famed CR7 celebration, to a chorus of ‘Siiiiiuuuu’ from The Stand.
While most sides would have taken things easy, as mentioned earlier, Our Stags were not done yet. They were on the prowl for more goals, and unsurprisingly, they bagged another one.
In the 31st minute, 18-year-old Andrew Aw’s long throw-in found Boris Kopitović in a threatening position. Effectively shielding the ball as he always does, he managed to break free from his marker, Madhu Mohana, and found space to supply the ball to Taufik down the right flank. Our ‘Dancing King’ reminded everyone of his attacking prowess, as he lobbed a delightful cross into the box which found our 2022 SPL Golden Boot Winner. He was never going to miss, and it was 3-0 to Our Stags.
3 goals in 5 minutes, and there was no doubt about who was in control of the game. We managed 11 shots in the half, with 6 of them on target, compared to Balestier’s 2 shots and single shot on target.
The referee brought an end to what was an exciting first half for The Stand. Maintaining a healthy lead at half-time helped fuel Our Stags’ confidence but we needed to draw from various experiences this season, for, as we learnt, such a lead at half-time was clearly not unassailable. We took our chances in the first 45 minutes and we knew we had to continue this for the second half.
At half-time, we invited a very special guest in our JSSL-TRFC Women’s team, who are facing Police SA in the Women’s National League Grand Finals in Jalan Besar Stadium at 7.30pm tomorrow. The team basked in the applause from the crowd as they shared tidbits of their personal connections with Tampines, and we certainly hope to see you at the game to cheer them on!
When the second half commenced, Our Stags did not take their foot off the pedal and charged full steam ahead. It wasn’t long before they were once again rewarded for being on the front foot.
Taufik dazzled down the left flank with flair, wickedly beating his marker with his blistering pace before squaring it to Joel Chew who effortlessly placed it in the bottom left corner of the goal. 4-0 to the Stags - and a party atmosphere was starting to brew - and for good reason, there was certainly plenty to celebrate.
We made a double change in the 59th minute as Amirul Haikal and Andrew Aw were brought off after a marvelous display, and experienced veterans Chris van Huizen and Irwan Shah came in to add fresh legs in the fullback department to ensure us the victory. Zehrudin Mehmedović and Syed Firdaus Hassan were added into the mix 6 minutes later, replacing the goal-scoring duo of Joel and Taufik. These changes would fittingly serve as catalysts for the subsequent goals, speaking to the masterstrokes that are the substitution decisions by our coaching staff.
Darting down the right flank, Syed Firdaus would easily brush off a challenge by Ho Wai Loon and whip in a low-driven cross to Boris who registered his second of the evening. 5-0 but our towering Montenegrin was determined to claim his hat-trick, and did so in lightning fashion.
Not long after the kick-off, Boris pounced on some miscommunication between Ensar Brunčević and Amer Hakeem, as he tirelessly chased down an underpowered tap back to the defender. Clean through on goal, Boris executed a perfectly placed shot to the right of Hairul Syirhan, who stood rooted to the spot. 6-0 thanks to our very own Hat-trick Hero who scored his 41st goal of the season.
More liquid football was soon to come though, as a calm one-two with Syed and Yu En ended up at the feet of Chris van Huizen, who made a familiar overlap on the wing. His delightful cross bound for Boris had to be parried away by the Balestier keeper, but the ball fell into the path of Our Serbian Magician Mehmedović. He picked up the free ball and slotted into the back of the net to make it seventh heaven for Tampines Rovers. 7-0 to Our Stags.
Yasir Hanapi was brought off two minutes later in the 81st-minute for Jovan Ang, who was handed his first-team debut in what was truly a match to remember. Only 16 years old and #OneOfOurOwn, Jovan is the latest Young Buck to enter the first team foray and we are immensely proud.
The Tigers did claw back a consolation goal, however, as a smart near-post finish from Daniel Goh reminded us of one crucial lesson - we must not let up regardless of the result. 7-1, but we would soon put the final nail in the coffin, and atone for this mistake.
In the 90th minute, Yu En’s pass parted two Balestier defenders to find Mehmedovic, who, in his signature fashion, drove into the open space to unleash a simply vicious effort past the despairing dive of Hairul Syirhan to make it two goals for him. 8-1, and our now well-acquainted goal stinger of ‘Black And Yellow’ by Wiz Khalifa, which was introduced at the beginning of the season, rang around Our Tampines Hub for the last time this year.
The referee then called time to a fine display by Our Stags. With a standing ovation by The Stand, our players lapped up the adulation at Our Tampines Hub one final time for the year, and celebrated a big victory with our fans.
A resounding victory was the perfect response to a stifling loss last weekend and Our Stags stepped up to the plate when it mattered the most, playing the fast, flowing football that had come to define Tampines Rovers in recent history.
“Tonight, we showed our style of football as well as our high standards from the very first minute. We created many chances, controlled and dominated the game, and because of that, we scored 8 goals - we deserve to win tonight.” said a triumphant Boris Kopitovic, whose hat-trick for the night brought his tally to a stunning 41 goals for the campaign.
And there was more reason to celebrate, as his appearance off the bench also marked his 200th in the Tampines Yellow and Black. Having been with the club since 2016, Irwan has been an invaluable part of the squad and to the campaign, and he spoke to the team’s strong mindset to bounce back from the previous defeat.
“All of us were obviously dissatisfied with our performance as we had set our expectations and standards high, yet we were unable to achieve them. From then on, we were ready and eager to bounce back. Indeed, we did just that, and we are very delighted to be one step closer to the Singapore Cup Finals. We are definitely focused on finishing this campaign on a high.” declared Irwan.
While Tampines may have established a comfortable 7-goal cushion, Our Stags know the job is not over, a point that Shuya Yamashita reinforced after the match.
“Today’s win was about us gaining our consistency back. However, our finals spot is not confirmed. We must prepare and rest well for the next game if we want to be Champions.”
In a night of living up to traditions, we heralded a familiar theme in Rovers folklore - that of melding youth and experience, and our #YoungBucks certainly shone today. In attack, Ong Yu En pulled the strings in midfield, notching two assists. In defence, Andrew Aw made his first Singapore Cup start and sparkled on the pitch, much to the delight of The Stand.
There was, however, one very special story that must be highlighted amidst the celebration - that of the debuting 16-year-old Jovan Ang, making his very first senior team appearance, in a Semi-Final first leg, no less. We last caught up with the Young Buck back in May, when he stated that he had full trust in the coaching staff in determining opportunities for him to get minutes on the pitch. That trust in the team has definitely paid off, as Jovan mentions :
“I am so grateful for the whole coaching team for putting their trust in me and giving me the opportunity to make my debut. They have been constantly guiding me during training to help me improve on my game, and they always encourage me even when I make mistakes. This has really helped me stay motivated and confident, and I certainly wouldn’t be the player I am today without them.”
He had only positive words to share about his first time out in front of The Stand, who definitely made themselves heard tonight.
“It was such an amazing experience, the atmosphere was great and in response, the team was putting on a show. I am so thankful that I was able to be part of this huge win, and of course, a big thank you to the fans who were tremendous as always.”
We thank you for the amazing turnout at our final Home game of the season, and we hope to see you in the second leg this Tuesday at Toa Payoh Stadium. Your support has been invaluable this season, and with one more match separating us from the Singapore Cup Final we have been longing for, you can expect Our Stags to play their hearts out. Let’s Go Rovers!