TAMPINES ROVERS 1
(Luis Closa 75)
ALBIREX NIIGATA 1
(Shuhei Hotta 6)
He pointed, screamed, whispered instructions, and put his head in his hands.
And at one point, Rafi Ali even looked like he was about to abandon the touchline and burst onto the pitch.
The Tampines Rovers interim head coach could not inspire his charges to a win in his first game in charge, but last night at the Clementi Stadium, he drew several positives after the Great Eastern Yeo's S.League champions' 1-1 draw with Albirex Niigata.
"We were caught out with a good (Albirex) set-piece, but no one in the team gave up. There was a willingness to win, and we had several chances to score and could have won, but luck wasn't on our side," he said, addressing the press after an animated 10-minute post-match pitch-side talk with his team.
"I couldn't ask for more."
Former Singapore international Rafi took over the reins on Monday after Salim Moin resigned on Sunday.
It looked as if Rafi was going to endure a nightmare start when Shuhei Hotta ghosted in at the near post and headed in a sixth minute corner from the impressive Kazuya Okazaki, but otherwise, Albirex created few other goal-scoring chances against a makeshift Tampines defence missing three first- choice defenders.
With skipper Mustafic Fahrudin moved from midfield into the heart of the defence, the Stags lacked bite in the middle of the park.
Most of their good work came down the wings, with Ismadi Mukhtar epitomising the spirit of Rafi's Tampines.
The left-sided wingback was dogged in defence and indomitable in attack launching cross after cross into the box, with Miljan Mrdakovic guilty of missing several chances.
It was another set-piece that saw the Stags drag themselves into the game.
Shahdan Sulaiman's 75th-minute in-swinger was cleared to the top of the box, where the lurking Luis Closa (above, right) fired in a bullet into the bottom corner of Kazuki Kishigami's goal.
Substitute Noh Alam Shah had a gilt-edged chance to seal all three points for the champions, but somehow failed to find the target from inside the six-yard box.
"On any other day that would have gone in, but we are getting into scoring positions and if we keep giving 100 per cent, the results will come," said Rafi.
While Rafi was able to draw positives from the match, it was evident that the swagger of champions still elude the Stags, who have now won just twice in their last eight games in all competitions.
After next week's date with an in-form Warriors FC, Tampines face Home United, and they are two games that could well determine their season.
It was a fact not lost on the new head coach.
"What we lack is composure, conviction and confidence. And this is really all about confidence. I know these players and we just need to motivate them, because when confidence comes back, we will turn the corner," said Rafi.
"But the fighting spirit we saw was wonderful, if we have that, we can only go forward."
This article was published on May 2 in The New Paper.
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