After our unfortunate exit in the AFC Cup, we returned to the Singapore Premier League foray. After a difficult continental campaign, one in which we learned many invaluable lessons, Our Stags were determined to return to winning ways.
Yet, Albirex Niigata (S) awaited us at Jurong East Stadium. The White Swans were coming to this fixture on the back of a five-match after their 3-3 draw with Our Stags in April. Albirex is always a challenging side to play against and Our Stags knew they needed to fire all cylinders to come away with three points.
It was a tall order for sure but as always, Tampines Rovers had the means to deliver. Fueled by the events last week in Kuala Lumpur, Our Stags set their sights on proving a point.
From the first whistle, both sides competed for possession and played with sheer intensity. As much as Our Stags wanted to come away with a win, the Swans aimed to maintain their winning run to pile on the pressure on Lion City Sailors. It was only a matter of time before the first goal came but unfortunately for us, it was Albirex that struck first in the 13th minute.
Masahiro Sugita’s effort bounced off the crossbar and fell to Kodai Tanaka who headed in Albirex’s opening goal of the fixture. This fixture certainly had many underlying narratives and the Tanaka-Kopitović rivalry in the Golden Boot race was certainly one of them. This time though, the Japanese forward leap-frogged our beloved Montenegrin with his strike. 1-0 to Albirex.
For the rest of the first half, Our Stags tried to claw back with a goal but they could not find the back of the net. As the referee called for halftime, there was a firm belief within the Tampines camp that the match was still there for the taking.
Tampines Rovers began the second half strongly. Our Stags were playing with more confidence and linking up better than in the first 45 minutes.
Yet, against the run of play, our task at hand became that much more difficult after Ilhan Fandi converted his effort in the 59th minute to make it 2-0 to the White Swans. It was a real sucker punch as our backline got caught out by a marginal offside-beating run from the young striker.
Yet, Our Stags responded with style.
A minute later, our skipper Yasir Hanapi executed a brilliant pass to “Big Bad” Boris who took his shot the first time (from a rather acute angle) and buried the ball into the back of the net past the Albirex custodian. Boris’s strike offered a sense of hope to Our Stags that we can come away with a positive result. It was also his 14th goal of the season and that meant that he was the joint-top scorer alongside Tanaka. The scoreline read 2-1. It was Game On.
Our Stags upped the intensity and came close to scoring that all-important second goal. Taufik Suparno’s 65th-minute wonder strike seemed destined to end up as the equalizer.
A minute later though, our plans were shattered again as Albirex scored their third goal of the game through a Jun Kobayashi header. 3-1 to Albirex.
Albirex would concede a penalty towards the end of the game after some fine work from us from a corner kick, and Boris stepped up to the plate, coolly drilling it into the bottom left corner. The goal meant that Tanaka’s place at the top of the goal-scoring charts was a brief one and Boris remains on top with 15 goals in 13 games. More importantly, the scoreline read 3-2 and Our Stags knew that equalizing was within the realm of possibility.
Unfortunately, despite their efforts, the match ended with Albirex clinching a narrow victory, one that was definitely there for the taking for us.
Our Head Coach Gavin Lee believes that Our Stags certainly improved in certain areas but there are still areas that need to be worked on.
“It was a better game for us today in a few aspects,” explains Gavin. But again, the difference between the teams is that they made fewer errors than we did and our errors were costly today. It sounds like a broken record now but that’s something that we have to address. We need to have a look at the issues and approach things differently or find a better solution.”
“In terms of our game plan, we created our opportunities both ways and that was good,” explains Gavin. “But again, they were more clinical than us and that was a big difference today between the sides. Now, it’s about us picking ourselves up and going again against Balestier.”
It may have been a bitter defeat for Our Stags but we can take heart in the fact that they went toe to toe with Albirex and never gave up till the final whistle - something that our Number 9 echoes.
“My teammates and I gave everything today to win this game,” explains Boris. “We had the desire to win the game and I want to say sorry to our fans that we could not deliver (a victory). We promise to be better and against Balestier Khalsa, we will try to return to winning ways.”
We sincerely thank all members of The Stand for their strong support on a Monday evening. You are truly our twelfth man, and we always appreciate your presence each and every game.
We go again next week against the Tigers at Toa Payoh Stadium (Saturday, 9th July, 5:30 pm) and as ‘Big Bad’ Boris appropriately put it, we will look to “return to winning ways.”