While the rest of the pack was taking a break from the Singapore Premier League, Tampines Rovers were back in action. Our Stags were taking on Young Lions in a makeup fixture and the game marked our 7th and final fixture of the first round. In our previous two fixtures, Our Stags drew Tanjong Pagar and Albirex Niigata (S) 3-3 each. Even though we put in a much better performance against Albirex, Our Stags were itching to return to winning ways.
Yet, it was not going to be a walk in the park. The Young Lions had recently clipped the wings of Geylang International by delivering a 4-1 thumping of the Eagles. This marked the Cubs' first victory of the season and they were brimming with confidence. Many familiar faces were also on display for Young Lions. Both of our recent 5-year contract signees, Shah Shahiran and Joel Chew, started for the Cubs while Syahrul Sazali was named on the Young Lions bench. Nevertheless, Our Stags were Primed with a game plan and they knew they needed to be on their best to come away with three points.
The referee blew his whistle and we were about to have a thriller of a contest on our hands.
Yet, it was Young Lions who broke the deadlock mere seconds after kick-off. Joel Chew [One Of Our Own] skillfully waltzed into the attacking third and picked out Zikos Chua with a well-placed pass and the forward converted his effort to grant Young Lions an early lead over Tampines Rovers. It was certainly mixed feelings for the Tampines faithful. On one hand, members of The Stand were delighted to see Joel perform well but at the same time, were frustrated that he helped the Cubs draw first blood.
It may have been an early sucker punch but Our Stags knew that they had the rest of the game to make amends. And so, they forged ahead.
However, despite the Stags' efforts to equalize, the Young Lions doubled their lead from a corner kick some 20 minutes after the first goal. Jordan Emaviwe buried home the Cubs' second goal. Going 2-0 down to Cubs certainly stung but that only motivated Our Stags to go into overdrive.
Despite several attempts, Tampines Rovers struggled to break through and headed into half-time, trailing 2-0. Our Stags knew they needed to be better and regrouped during the break.
Our Stags stepped onto the pitch and knew that they had a tall order in front of them. Overturning a 2-0 deficit is not for the faint-hearted but unlike other teams, Tampines Rovers have staged mighty comebacks for decades. Our Stags took heart in last week's performances against Albirex where they clawed back after similarly trailing 2-0. With renewed belief following the half-time team talk, they marched onto the pitch with only one thing on their minds - bagging those three points.
After several attacking movements, Our Stags manage to win a freekick near the edge of the box. Boris Kopitović, Kyoga Nakamura, and Zehrudin Mehmedović, all stepped up to take the setpiece. Surprisingly, it was our towering Montenegrin that unleashed a wonderful strike that curled into the back of the net. The deficit was reduced and the Stags only trailed 2-1.
After repeated attempts to force an equalizer, Our Stags finally got their reward. In the 82nd minute, Yasir Hanapi whips in a floating cross from another freekick spot and his delivery connects with Shuya Yamashita who heads it in to make it 2-2. This marks Shuya's first goal for the Stags and what a time to score it.
It seemed as if we were going to see out yet another draw but Big Bad Boris had other ideas.
Our Stags managed to win yet another freekick near the edge of the box deep into stoppage time and Boris stepped up once again. And just like the earlier setpiece, he blasted his shot into the back of the net to help Tampines Rovers finally overturn the 2-0 deficit they suffered in the opening 20 minutes.
Soon later, the referee calls for Full Time and the Stags conclude their SPL Round 1 proceedings with a 3-2 victory - cue celebrations from The Stand.
It was certainly a special day for a number of players - Boris converted two free-kicks, Shuya Yamashita scored his first goal of the season, and Irfan Najeeb made his first start of the season. Yet, it will be an unforgettable evening for one player in particular.
Seconds before Shuya equalized for the Stags, Tampines Rovers had brought on 17-year-old Ali Manaf onto the field of play. While the Stags were trailing 2-1, the coaching staff entrusted the former Albirex Niigata (S) winger to get the job done while he made his professional debut.
It was certainly a dream come true for the talented prospect but Ali does believe he can and will do better on the pitch.
"I certainly did not expect the opportunity but I am truly grateful for it," mentions Ali. "Yet, despite making my professional debut, I was not satisfied with my performance. It was touching to hear the heartwarming words of encouragement from my teammates and coaches. I will continue to work hard and earn another opportunity to feature in the first team so that I can do better!"
Our Head Coach Gavin Lee also reflected on Round 1 as a whole and looks forward to the fixtures in Round 2.
"I think we have shown glimpses of what this group is capable of," he mentions. "The challenge now is to churn out those wins that we did not get. We need to keep improving on certain areas and we will get better."
Also, if you are wondering what was said during the halftime team talk, Gavin sheds some light. (Keep a lookout on our social media in the next few days, as we offer a sneak peek.)
"The message at halftime was to raise the bar. There were certain behaviours that were unacceptable and we needed to stick to the game plan."
And that rounds up the first round of fixtures for Our Stags! Stay tuned for their next game where they take on Young Lions at Jalan Besar Stadium on May 8, 2022.