S.League: Stags leave it late

It is hardly a secret - speed is the Kryptonite of the ageing Tampines Rovers.

They may have been the Supermen of the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League, virtually cruising to the title in the last three editions but, against a Home United side blessed with an abundance of fleet-footed footballers, most expected the Stags to be taken apart at Bishan Stadium last night.

Blessed with power and guile, Home are the best-equipped local outfit to dismantle a Tampines team who have yet to find their feet. But the Stags turned in their best showing in three games under interim coach Rafi Ali. Still, they managed only a 2-2 draw.

"In the first game, I could see that there were nerves - that tremendous pressure to not lose, but we are progressing," said Rafi, who has led Tampines to three consecutive draws, with Albirex Niigata, Warriors FC, and now, Home.

"(Against Home) we looked better, had more control, but we need to kill teams off." Not for the first time, Tampines made things difficult for themselves.

Defender Abdil Qaiyyim bundled in a Shahdan Sulaiman corner in the 53rd minute to give Tampines the lead but, given the many goal-scoring chances they created, they should have been a few goals in front by then.

Miljan Mrdakovic was guilty of missing several opportunities fashioned by an efficient Stags midfield that displayed an uncanny ability to go from defence to attack in a handful of passes.

However, the profligacy of Mrdakovic and Aleksandar Duric, and good goalkeeping from Home custodian Shahril Jantan, kept the hosts in the game.

Then it fell apart.

The Stags conceded two goals within a space of eight frantic minutes.

The first was a clinical volley by Kwon Dakyung, that came immediately after Tampines made a substitution while defending a free-kick in the 75th minute.

When former Stag Qiu Li rifled in a bullet of a shot from a tight angle in the 83rd minute, Home seemed to have clinched the three points.

HANDBALL

But a controversial penalty - allegedly for handball by Bruno Castanheira - in the fifth minute of time added on when only three minutes were signalled, gave Tampines a lifeline.

It was one that skipper Mustafic Fahrudin took with aplomb.

"This was a game we could have won," said Rafi, whose team stay on 22 points in third spot after last night's result, nine behind leaders DPMM FC, and two behind Alex Weaver's Warriors.

Home are in fourth place, a point behind the Stags.

"We're nine behind DPMM, but we will meet them two times more, and we can take six points off them," Rafi added. DPMM face a tough run of games, taking on Warriors, Home and then Tampines, in a couple of weeks that could see the margin between the leaders and the chasing pack diminish.

But Home's coach Lee Lim Saeng is acutely aware of the need to be clinical.

"I think anything can happen, but it is true - we cannot afford to lose points anymore," said the South Korean, who was pleased with how his charges performed, but clearly annoyed at the decision of referee Taqi Jahari to award that late penalty.

While Rafi remains uncertain if he will stay in the Tampines job, like Lee, he remains confident of giving the Bruneian outfit a run for their money.

"I'm not the kind of person to throw in the towel, we will keep going," he said.

"I still believe that this team, once we get the first win under me - and get that pressure off our shoulders - we'll be able to do it."

shamiro@sph.com.sg

 

This article was published on 19 May in The New Paper.

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