For any reigning champion, the expectation to defend your title will always exist. For a club with a rich heritage like Tampines Rovers, it is no different. This responsibility has been shouldered by various Tampines teams across the decades and the torch has been passed to the current crop of Stags who defend our status as reigning Singapore Cup Champions.
Yet, emerging as Singapore Cup Champions once again is no easy feat.
After edging past our Eastern Derby rivals Geylang International in a nail-biting encounter in the first fixture, Our Stags faced yet another stern challenge - this time in the form of Tanjong Pagar United. The Jaguars have proven to be a real thorn in our side and while we may have prevailed in our previous clash, we were pushed to our limits till the final whistle.
Our matches with Tanjong Pagar have become tense battles in recent years and this game was not going to be any different.
Knowing that a victory brings Tampines Rovers one step closer to the next round, Our Stags marched onto the pitch accompanied by their mascots from our JSSL Singapore, with only one objective in our mind - claiming three points.
Clad in our new white Singapore Cup kits, Our Stags began the match brightly by launching successive waves of attacks on the Jaguars’ defence. Tanjong Pagar United sat back and coped with our attempts by congesting their own half, making it difficult for Our Stags to penetrate through. It was going to take someone to step up and produce a moment of brilliance to penetrate the backline.
In the 15th minute, it was Zehrudin Mehmedović who stepped up and pulled one out of his bag of tricks. Seeing Yasir Hanapi find space in a threatening position, our Serbian magician executed a carefully crafted lobbed pass that accurately finds our skipper, who instinctively controls it and slots it past Zharfan Rohaizad to give Tampines the lead. 1-0 to Our Stags.
We knew from experience this year that an early one-goal lead wasn’t going to be sufficient to silence the Jaguars.
And true enough, it wasn’t long before Tanjong Pagar found the equalizer. Syazwan Buhari pulled off an excellent save to deny Shakir Hamzah’s bolt of a free-kick but the rebound landed for Reo Nishiguchi who slotted into the back of the net to level the scores at 1-1.
Our Stags knew that with the support of The Stand behind them, they just needed to stick to the game plan to regain the lead.
The man whose form has trumped Reo’s this season, Boris Kopitovic, was the inevitable source of our go-ahead goal just three minutes later. Irfan, this time the provider, sent in a cross which caused mayhem in the Tanjong Pagar penalty area. The ball managed to find our SPL Golden Boot winner at the back post and he duly slotted it past Zharfan with consummate ease. 2-1 to Tampines.
Boris would almost find the goal again just four minutes later when Kyoga played an immaculate ball over the top from his own half, but the Montenegrin could only fire over the bar.
It looked like we were the team most likely to get the fourth goal of the game before the break but it was not meant to be. Yasir came closest to that as he pounced on a mistake by Aqhari Abdullah but he could only fire his shot straight into Zharfan.
As we went into the halftime break, we knew that we had to build on our current advantage because we have seen comebacks from The Jaguars before, so it was pivotal that we put them away before we give them any hope.
At half-time, we invited some members of The Stand to take part in a simple game to prove their footballing skills, and, in style, they absolutely delivered! Thank you to our Official Style Partners, Vintage Studio, for providing the prizes for our stylish fans, and as they retook their seats, we were bound for another half of equally fashionable football.
The referee began the second half and we were on the offensive from the get-go, knowing all too well from our previous experiences that a bigger cushion was needed. Kyoga Nakamura navigated through the compact Jaguar midfield with relative ease but his shot was saved by Zharfan.
Kyoga came close for a second time but his shot was deflected and narrowly missed the goal. After scoring the winner against Geylang, it seemed destined that our midfield maestro would strike yet again.
In the 60th minute, he did just that, and what a goal it was. After Taufik Suparno earned a free kick from a dangerous position near the edge of the box. Kyoga shouldered the responsibility and stepped up to the plate. He then unleashed a scintillating shot that curled beyond the reach of an outstretched Zharfan. 3-1 to Tampines.
With momentum on their side, Our Stags charged forward to the chorus of chants by The Stand. The party-like atmosphere clearly spurred our players on as they sought yet another goal and with the Tampines faithful behind them, they got it.
Once again, it was our Serbian Magician that was the architect. From a freekick down the left flank, Mehmedovic lobbed the ball into the middle of the box and Birthday Boy Taufik Suparno leapt highest among the pack to greet it. The dancing king instantly headed the ball toward the goal and it ricocheted off the woodwork and into the back of the net. 4-1 to Our Stags but Tampines Rovers never lets up.
It seemed as if the match was done and dusted when some late drama ensued. While throwing his body against a shot, Ryaan Sanizal was penalised for handling the ball in the box and the Jaguars were handed a penalty in the 88th minute. Tanjong Pagar have stunned us with comebacks this season and a late goal could potentially ignite a dreaded comeback.
However, Syazwan Buhari had other ideas. Our ever-dependable shot-stopper reminded everyone of his heroics in the 2019 Singapore Cup Final when he played with two broken fingers. He saved Reo’s shot with relative ease and held on to the ball tightly. The Jaguars were denied and it remained 4-1 to Our Stags.
A few minutes after Syazwan’s penalty save, the referee brought an end to the proceedings of what was truly an exciting fixture.
“These three points were very important for us today and the win gives us a lot of confidence,” shares Mehmedović. “I feel that very good to have helped the team with 2 assists but I feel even happier with how the team performed.”
Our 20-year-old rock in the back Ryaan Sanizal expands his sentiments on the team’s performance.
“Everybody was given a specific role today and gave their 100% to fulfil what was assigned to them - everyone did their part,” explains Ryaan. “We knew that going into this game was going to be a little bit more of a challenge especially because of the tight nature of the previous fixture. We have strong characters in the team who really helped us see out this difficult fixture and we came away with important three points.”
This season has been a steep learning curve for many of our young team but Our Stags have learned and adapted with each match. While certain issues still need ironing out, this fixture highlighted how the team has evolved.
“We did well for most of the 90 minutes,” shares our Head Coach Gavin Lee. “We didn’t defend well in a few of the set-piece situations but overall, we did a lot better than previous fixtures. It was also good that our substitutes came on and helped to maintain the possession and to effectively see out the game.”
Another crucial element to the resounding victory was the support that The Stand gave our players throughout the fixture.
“As usual the fans were absolutely amazing,” shares Ryaan. “They were exceptionally loud today and there wasn’t a minute of silence. I heard them throughout the game and my teammates and I are very grateful for their support. It’s not easy to come down on a weeknight but they turned up in numbers. The Stand is truly the 12th man and an integral part of our win today.”
The win against the Jaguars extended our unbeaten run to 10 games and brought us one step closer to the next round. However, Our Stags know they can’t take this for granted since the job isn’t complete yet.
Mathematically, both Hougang United and Tanjong Pagar United can qualify for the knockout stage instead of Tampines Rovers and as Gavin points out, Our Stags “need to be at their best against the Cheetahs to secure our position in the semi-finals.”
We face Hougang United this Sunday (November 6, 5:30 pm) at Hougang Stadium to conclude the Singapore Cup Group Stage and we hope that you can lend Our Stags your support once more as we make our final push to the next round!