(Fazrul Nawaz 22)

(Azhar Sairudin 23, Ken Ilso 70)

At this rate, Tampines Rovers may have to win the AFC Cup to qualify for the second-tier continental competition next season. The S.League title may be their ultimate goal, but after losing 2-1 to Home United at Jalan Besar last night in front of 2,099 fans, they have failed to close the five-point gap on Albirex Niigata who lead with 26 points from 11 games.

But if they continue to drop points – they have now lost 12 points out of a possible 33 – they may not even finish the season as the top-ranked local team, with the Protectors increasingly looking like a team capable of overtaking the Stags, all departments considered.

Tampines goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud may shade Home United’s Hyrulnizam Juma’at, who came out unnecessarily to the left of his penalty area to try and intercept Ismadi Mukhtar’s long ball, only to allow Fazrul Nawaz to lob him for the 22nd minute opener.

But even Izwan is powerless when the defence in front doesn’t protect him enough, and it has shown with just two clean sheets in the league so far. Just a minute after Fazrul’s goal, the Tampines defenders allowed Azhar Sairudin, not known for his aerial prowess, to flick in Juma’at Jantan’s cross from the right.

At 35, Mustafic Fahrudin also doesn’t look like he has the legs to last the rigours of the game, especially at centre back, which is not his natural position. In comparison, Home United centre backs were more mobile as Shahrin Saberin and especially Abdil Qaiyyim gobbled up everything in the air, leaving Hyrulnizam with not a major save to make all night.

The battle of the engine room was a close fight as Yasir Hanapi, Izzdin Shafiq and Billy Mehmet are physically strong and generally keep the ball well, while Home United’s trio of Aqhari Abdullah, Azhar Sairudin and Song Ui Young are marginally quicker and more dynamic.

Both teams dominated their respective left flanks, with Tampines’ Hafiz Sujad putting in another solid shift as he repeatedly tested the impressive Juma’at, while Home United’s Faris Ramli displayed his bundle of tricks and had Noh Rahman in knots at times.

Former Arsenal and Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant came on at the start of the second half, and yet did not make much of an impact as the Home United players kept their discipline and did not concede any free-kicks for the Englishman to attempt. But the money make lies up front and that’s where Ken Ilso reigns supreme, even if Fazrul also scored.

There is simply no comparison as the Great Dane demonstrated not just his superb footballing brain, vision, and movement, but also top-class technique with his close control.

The same cannot be said of Fazrul, who tends to be a more reactive poacher. He can pack an imaginative shot, but is more unreliable with his first touch.
As it turned out, it was Ilso’s seventh goal of the season that sealed three points for Home United, as he stayed onside to pick up Song Ui Young’s through ball and placed it expertly beyond Izwan in the 70th minute.

Home United coach Philippe Aw was understandably buoyed after seeing his side win three league games on the bounce for the first time since 2014. He said: “It was a battling display to come back and win. We defended well and Hyrulnizam did not have a save to make.

“Our attackers can still do better. With better passing, movement and finishing, we could have scored more and earlier to finish off the game. “We want to keep winning, but equally important is entertaining the fans so that they will return for more.”

As the Protectors marched into the top three, Tampines coach V Sundramoorthy was left worried about his players’ ability to cope with a demanding schedule that had seen them play 10 games in 41 days.

He said: “I am concerned about losing touch with Albirex and playing too many games. We are being squeezed and it’s going to be tough. “We have to recover and bounce back. If the players are fresh, we should be okay.”

Unfortunately, they will not have the luxury of time as they have to play the rescheduled match against Warriors FC on Tuesday after it was called off earlier in the season due to inclement weather.

TAMPINES ROVERS: Izwan Mahbud, Noh Rahman, Mustafic Fahrudin, Shakir Hamzah, Irwan Shah, Ismadi Mukhtar (Jordan Webb 72), Izzdin Shafiq, Yasir Hanapi (Jermaine Pennant 46), Hafiz Sujad (Sufian Anuar 83), Billy Mehmet, Fazrul Nawaz

HOME UNITED: Hyrulnizam Juma’at, Juma’at Jantan, Abdil Qaiyyim, Shahrin Saberin, Sirina Camara, Shamil Sharif (Redzwan Atan 82), Song Ui Young, Aqhari Abdullah (Syahiran Miswan 72), Azhar Sairudin, Faris Ramli, Ken Ilso

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