<Photo Credits: Leo Sheng Wei>
TAMPINES ROVERS 4 (Billy Mehmet 2, Hafiz Abu Sujad 33, Afiq Yunos 52, Topu Barman 53 og)
SHEIKH JAMAL DHANMONDI CLUB 0
Singaporean teams got off to a good start in the second-tier AFC club competition, with Tampines Rovers beating Bangladesh's Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club 4-0 at Jalan Besar and Balestier Khalsa holding New Radiant to a 2-2 draw in the Maldives last night.
Tampines coach V Sundramoorthy had challenged his team to emulate Johor Darul Ta'zim to go all the way and win the AFC Cup. With a renewed positive buzz around the S.League, 2,378 fans, including a sizeable away section, turned up at Jalan Besar to see what the Stags were capable off in Group E. In terms of result, they delivered one that equals their biggest AFC Cup win, with former Arsenal and Liverpool star Jermaine Pennant involved in all four goals.
While the 33-year-old marquee signing is clearly no longer the flying winger he once was, he was still too good for the opponents who were making their debut in the AFC Cup proper. Barely more than a minute had elapsed when his right-wing cross was swept in by striker Billy Mehmet. He linked up with Mehmet again in the 33rd minute, and the latter crossed for Hafiz Sujad to score with a diving header.
Pennant was not done yet and it was his 52nd-minute corner that created panic in the box as Afiq Yunos pounced with the third before the unlucky-but-delightfully-named Topu Barman put the ball past his own goalkeeper from Pennant's cross just a minute later to wrap up the scoring.
National football coach Bernd Stange has long stated the need for S.League clubs to set their sights higher, with better performances at the continental level crucial in raising the level of Singapore football. Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club are unlikely to be the top opposition Stange was imagining, but it was still encouraging to see some of the local footballers taking the assignment seriously.
Goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud, who made the football world sit up and take notice when he single-handedly restricted Japan to a 0-0 draw last June, had to be alert to make several smart stops to deny the tricky Wedson Anselme. Left wing back Hafiz was a menace on the overlap and even managed to squander a one-on-one late in the game.
Fabian Kwok did no harm to his case for a first national call-up by settling in well at right wing back despite being played out of position, while centre back Afiq was a strong physical presence at the back alongside retired international Noh Rahman. Yasir Hanapi and Shahdan Sulaiman were inevitably overshadowed by Pennant's contributions, but Christopher van Huizen showed he could be useful with his direct runs before he was bafflingly replaced by an ineffective Jordan Webb in the first half.
Knowing that sterner tests await, Sundramoorthy said: "We have a good team that allow us to dream. This is a good start but we can still improve. We must be more clinical and we can keep the ball better."
And Pennant is happy to play his part in Tampines' quest to be a regional force and go beyond the AFC Cup quarter-final stage, the furthest the Stags have progressed in this competition (in 2005, 2006 and 2007). "Right now, I'm at about 85 to 90 per cent. What's lacking is match fitness and I can still get sharper, and my passes and through balls can be crisper," he said.
"It was a professional performance in which we tried to score as many as we can. The local players, such as our right wing back Fabian who ran himself to the ground, also played a big part.
"I think this is the best chance Tampines have got in recent years to go really far in this competition. It is still only the start of the season. Give us a few more games and we will get even better."
TAMPINES ROVERS: Izwan Mahbud, Kwon Jun, Noh Rahman, Afiq Yunos, Fabian Kwok, Yasir Hanapi, Shahdan Sulaiman (Izzdin Shafiq 62), Christopher van Huizen (Jordan Webb 32), Hafiz Sujad, Jermaine Pennant (Fazrul Nawaz 73), Billy Mehmet
SHEIKH JAMAL DHANMONDI CLUB: Mazharul Islam, Linkon, Topu Barman (Enamul Hoque 67), Yeasin Khan, Munna Yeasin Ahmed, Jamal Bhuyan, Nguyen Hang Tcheuko Minh (Kasto Kumar Bosh 37), Sohel Rana, Landing Darboe, Wedson Anselme, Emeka Onouha