MOHUN BAGAN 1
(Bikramjit Singh 72)
TAMPINES ROVERS 2
(Jordan Webb 63, Afiq Yunos 116)
Let’s get the inconvenient truths out of the way first.
This was not a world-class match even for a second-tier continental competition. In fact it was a pretty poor one that was bereft of pace, the hosts were rubbish save for their equaliser, and there were reportedly just 282 fans in the 35,000-seater Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati, India.
Okay, now that we have gotten all that out of the way, let’s congratulate Tampines Rovers for getting the job done and continue their march into the AFC Cup quarter-finals.
Whatever there is to be said about the aesthetics of their 2-1 Round of 16 win over Mohun Bagan after extra time will not be as important as the end result, which the Stags won fair and square.
This would be the first time an S.League club have made it into the last eight of this competition since SAFFC lost to Omani side Al Nahda 4-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals in 2008.
And Tampines had to do it the hard way.
From the start, they were missing three key players. Big forward Billy Mehmet was after being sent off, so was Yasir Hanapi the matchwinner against Selangor in their crucial final group game, and playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman was ruled out with a knee injury.
They then went a man down when left back Shakir Hamzah collected two yellow cards in the 51st and 54th minute and was sent off with the score at 0-0.
Against the run of play, Jordan Webb gave the visitors a shock lead when his attempted cross from the right wing looped over Arnab Das Sarma and went into the top corner in the 63rd minute.
But true to their form of making things difficult for themselves, the Tampines defence kept backing off from Bikramjit Singh, which allowed the Mohun Bagan midfielder to blast a powerful 30-metre effort in off Izwan Mahbud’s palm just nine minutes later for an equaliser that would send the tie into extra time.
Stags skipper Mustafic Fahrudin limped off in the 101st minute, which would have been the cue for the hosts to take advantage of their further-weakened 10-man opponents.
But it was Tampines’ other centre back Afiq Yunos who would have the final word when he thumped in a 116th-minute winner with his left foot off Jermaine Pennant’s clever cut-back from a free-kick on the left.
Despite the low-quality match, few will begrudge the Singaporean side the victory as they looked the fitter and hungrier side, and no one personified these traits more than the 35-year-old defensive midfielder Noh Rahman who looked like he could run for another two-hour match.
The victory served as a welcome distraction to their poor league form where they dropped seven points in their last three games, as well as a perfect sending-off for coach V Sundramoorthy, who is set to be unveiled as the new national coach on Friday before leading the Lions to a friendly quadrangular in Myanmar next month.
He said: “Full credit to the boys, they fought on to the very end and came up with the win.
“This game was not about revenge after losing to the same opponents 3-1 in the AFC Champions League qualifiers, nor is it about me. We are much better prepared this time with more games under our belt. It was a real team effort.”
With this year’s competition format dictating that the stronger West Asian teams will not play against their East Asian counterparts until the final, there is a stronger possibility the Stags can create history.
They must look at the rest of the teams on their side of the draw with great optimism – Hong Kong’s South China struggled to beat Filipino side Ceres La Salle 1-0 after extra time, while Hong Kong’s other representative Kitchee, another Filipino team Kaya, India’s Bengaluru FC and Malaysian holders Johor Darul Ta’zim must be seen as beatable across two legs.
The last time the S.League were represented in the AFC Cup in the final four was when Home United and Geylang United qualified for the semi-finals in 2004.
MOHUN BAGAN: Arnab Das Sarma, Luciano Sabrosa, Raju Eknath Gaikwad, Kinshuk, Leihaorungbam Dhanachandra Singh, Bikramjit Singh, Kean Lewis, Sarkar Tirthankar (Abishek Das 85), Lenny Rodrigues (Sauvik Chakrabarti 65), Lalpekhlua Jeje, Cornell Glen (Singam Subash Singh 40)
TAMPINES ROVERS: Izwan Mahbud, Ismadi Mukhtar, Mustafic Fahrudin (Kwon Jun 101), Afiq Yunos, Shakir Hamzah, Jordan Webb (Fabian Kwok 67), Izzdin Shafiq, Noh Rahman, Hafiz Sujad, Jermaine Pennant, Fazrul Nawaz (Irwan Shah 79)
Photo credits: Lagardère Sports