TAMPINES ROVERS 1
(Yasir Hanapi 31)
In the end, more fans turned up at the 55,000-seater National Stadium, and so did Tampines Rovers.
Needing a win to progress to the Round of 16 of the AFC Cup for the first time since 2011, a feat last accomplished by an S.League club in 2012 via Home United, the Stags rose to the occasion in front of 11,875 to beat Selangor 1-0 in their final Group E match.
It was also the perfect retort to Selangor coach Zainal Abidin, who had claimed in the pre-match press conference that “the (standard of the) Malaysian league is higher than here (Singapore).”
As the Malaysia Cup holders returned home with their tails between their legs, with some of their 200 travelling fans heckling their team after the final whistle, Tampines started dreaming of bigger things to come in Asia’s second-tier club competition.
As Group E runners-up, they will next take on Group G winners Mohun Bagan in Kolkata. The Indian side had earlier beaten Tampines 3-1 in the AFC Champions League qualifiers.
But Tampines coach V Sundramoorthy said: “We know Mohun Bagan’s strengths as we played them before. We want to go there, get the win, and push as far as possible in this competition.”
Amid doubt that the storyline of the Singapore-Malaysia rivalry has worn thin, the actual attendance figures were encouraging, considering this was a weekday evening match.
And indeed, it was a throwback to the good old days when players supposedly played not for money but for pride and the team they represent.
At least it seemed that way for Tampines, who have been the subject of some scrutiny after chairman Krishna Ramachandra admitted his club are facing cash-flow issues; it is understood there was no promise of big bonuses to win this match.
And yet, the Stags responded.
They kept their shape well and made good use of the length and width of the pitch to trouble their opponents, whose local players did not show as much drive as their imports.
Tampines goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud showed just how good a goalkeeper he was when he tipped over Robert Cornthwaite’s 23rd-minute header, before keeping out Mauro Olivi’s free-kick in first-half added time to keep his fifth clean sheet of the season.
In between, Yasir Hanapi curled an absolute beauty into the top corner with his left foot in the 31st minute for his fourth goal this year.
The central midfielder also put in a barnstorming shift in the engine room, snapping at heels, breaking up play winning possession, and launching attacks, deservedly winning the Man-of-the-Match award.
Former Arsenal and Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant also had a lively outing on the flanks, drawing fouls and going on slaloming runs to thrill the fans.
The only Tampines player who had a cause to complain was striker Billy Mehmet, who appeared to receive a second yellow card and was sent off for what looked like a case of mistaken identity, as Mustafic Fahrudin looked like the initial aggressor in a melee in the final minutes.
However, in general, it was a very accomplished performance from the Singaporean side that should bode well as the S.League seeks to emerge after years of mediocrity.
Selangor, on the other hand, are now left to pick up the pieces, as they don’t look capable of breaking Johor Darul Ta’zim’s dominance in the Malaysia Super League.
Zainal, who was naturally testy after having egg thrown on his face, declined to field questions about the referee’s performance or about his earlier claims.
All he would say was: “We gave away a goal and had a tough time looking for the equaliser. We had chances but we couldn’t convert.
“So well done to Tampines, but bad luck for us.”
Meanwhile, Balestier Khalsa, the S.League’s other representative in the AFC Cup, lost 4-0 away at Hong Kong side Kitchee and are eliminated after finishing third in Group F with seven points, an improvement from the three points they won in the debut campaign last year.
TAMPINES ROVERS: Izwan Mahbud, Noh Rahman, Mustafic Fahrudin, Afiq Yunos, Shakir Hamzah, Jermaine Pennant (Ismadi Mukhtar 81), Izzdin Shafiq, Yasir Hanapi (Kwon Jun 84), Shahdan Sulaiman (Fabian Kwok 90), Hafiz Sujad, Billy Mehmet
SELANGOR: Khairulazhan Khalid, Azrif Nasrulhaq, Shahrom Abdul Kalam, Robert Cornthwaite, Raimi Nor, Andik Vermansyah, Veenod Subramaniam (Adam Nor Azlin 68), Nazmi Faiz, R Gopinathan (Ahmad Hazwan Bakri 60), Patrick Wleh, Mauro Olivi
Photo credits: Leo Shengwei