After our comeback win against Tanjong Pagar United last weekend, we were back at Jurong East Stadium for a clash with Albirex Niigata Singapore. A win would take us to 3rd place with the Jaguars only playing the next day against the Lion City Sailors, so there was quite the incentive for us to pick up the 3 points.
But standing in our way were the Swans, who were looking to draw level on points with the Sailors at the top of the table with a win. Amirul Haikal would take his place in the starting lineup in place of Irwan Shah due to suspension, while Young Bucks Anton Goh and Matthias Koesno made places on the bench after their impressive performances for the COE U-21 side.
The battle of the top goal scorers also took center stage with our Montenegrin hitman Boris Kopitovic and the Swans’ Kodai Tanaka on 23 and 22 goals respectively. With so much to play for between both sides, it would sure prove to be an engaging affair for the packed out crowd at the Jurong East Stadium.
Albirex took little time to settle in, as a defensive intervention from Shuya Yamashita prevented Ilhan Fandi from converting Kodai’s cross into the box. Unfortunately, we would concede from the resulting corner.
We initially cleared our lines but Albirex would recycle possession effectively, and they played it into the penalty area for Tadanari Lee. He would nod it down for Kodai to tuck home his 23rd goal of the season. 1-0.
Despite the early setback, we would respond in typical Stags fashion by dominating possession in the midfield and trying to set up Boris, but Albirex looked like a tough nut to crack. That was until the 11th minute.
Syed Firdaus would find himself in space in the final third and he played a pass into Boris, who, in one quick movement, spun Jun Kobayashi and smashed a left footed shot into the bottom corner of the net. 1-1 and Boris retook the lead once again in the battle for the SPL Top Scorer title.
With the goal, there was a spring in our step, as we found crisp passes along the turf in our search for the go-ahead goal. Young Bucks Iman Hakim and Ong Yu En dovetailed beautifully with Kyoga Nakamura in the midfield, and it was our Japanese magician who would have the next impact in the 22nd minute mark.
After having picked up the ball up close to the center circle, Kyoga would glide forward as the Albirex players backed off. With all that time and space, Kyoga unleashed a familiar Kyoga-esque drive from all of 30 yards, which beat Koga’s despairing dive. 2-1 and it was looking like a sumptuous game of football for the Tampines faithful.
Just four minutes later, it could have been 3-1. Boris would make a nuisance of himself in the Albirex box and his knock-on would fall into the path of Iman. Unfortunately his shot was hit straight at Koga who saved it at the second attempt. This would prove a mightily important save because in the 29th minute, Albirex would draw level.
A speculative ball into our box was cleared by Chris Van Huizen, and the resulting ball would fall to Sugita who found Lee with a quick pass. Lee’s pinpoint cross to the back post would find the head of Kodai giving Syazwan no chance in goal. 2-2 and Kodai draws level in the race for the Golden Boot.
Despite the equalizer, we did not let that stop us from playing our brand of football with Kyoga at the heart of the midfield pulling the strings and Captain Yasir leading by example, harrying Albirex players into giveaways. However, our hosts would go on to take a heartbreaking lead in the 2nd minute of the first half stoppage time.
We dealt with a free kick on the edge of our box, but Albirex would regain possession. The team quickly sent it to Daichi Omori on the left flank, whose cross was converted by Ilhan who came in at the back post. 3-2.
As the whistle signaled the end of the first half, we went down the tunnel knowing we had a massive task on our hands to overturn the lead.
A bright start was needed to the half to try and set the pace and hopefully grab the win. Kyoga would be the main architect as a pass would find Amirul with a lot of green grass ahead of him. Unfortunately, his run culminated in him dragging his shot just wide of the target. First shot fired, and nearly the equalizer for The Stags.
Just a minute later, Yasir would be found by Syed Firdaus’s ball over the top. Koga rushed out of his box to try and put off Yasir, but he managed to dink the ball past the keeper. Kobasyashi, having sensed the danger, would however be on hand to chase back and he cleared the ball before it could nestle in the back of the net.
Before being subbed off, Lee would have his best chance for Albirex as his free header was saved by Syazwan after a well taken corner.
Both teams struggled to regain control but it was our opponents who hit the final blow in the 55th minute.
Koga’s punt into our half found Kodai, whose headed pass found Sugita running in to support. Albirex’s number 7 would then find Ilhan in space on the right side of our box with a great opportunity. His strike would take a cruel deflection off Shuya and sail past Syazwan for his second of the night. 4-2.
As the half wore on, we tried breaking down the Albirex defence, but we were not able to have as much of an effect as we did in the first half. Defensively, we effectively kept our hosts at arms length and restricted them only to half chances.
As the final whistle went, the disappointment was clearly visible amongst but with Young Lions on the horizon, we have to bounce back quickly.
Games against Albirex are always tough and we found ourselves on the end of a defeat. We played our game well but were undone by Albirex’s aerial prowess and their delivery from crosses. Young Buck Ong Yu En reflected on this at the end of the game.
“We simply didn’t defend the crosses well enough this game. That’s something I think we can work on further upon at the training ground.”
Fellow Young Buck Iman Hakim spoke on how, despite the setbacks, we still kept to our philosophy and threatened Albirex at multiple points of the game.
“I think the battle was quite tight in the first half, but Albirex maintained their intensity and quality and got the better of us throughout the whole game especially after the 4th goal. I think it was great to see how we tried to play our brand of football & even dominated them in the first 20-30 minutes. We created chances from there, but unfortunately we did not do enough to maintain our lead.”
As for one of the stars of the night, Kyoga, despite his disappointment at the defeat, he has a rallying cry for his teammates and for The Stand.
“We have to win in any situation, against any opponent, because Tampines is a team that has always proven to be winners. It was good that I scored a goal, but I am very disappointed that we did not win and make it three wins in a row.
We are in a difficult situation right now, but I feel that the team is getting very good. Everyone in the team is hungry to win, and we have good competition within the team. Now we just have to prove ourselves.”
To The Stand, deep appreciation for the traveling over the last 2 Gameweeks, and we never take this for granted. Despite this defeat, we will look to put this right when we head to Jalan Besar to play Young Lions next Wednesday. See you then.