Stags just fall short

Ending the game with only nine men against a team in fine mid-season form, Tampines Rovers fought gallantly for their right to mix it with Asia's big boys.

Sadly, it was not to be for the five-time S-League champions, who succumbed to Hong Kong-based South China 1-2 after extra time to crash out in the opening qualifier of the elite AFC Champions League (ACL).

With midfielder Shahdan Sulaiman down injured on the Jalan Besar turf in the 103rd minute, South China chose to play on as their opponents looked on.

And it was Australian hit-man Andrew Barisic who capped the move with a thumping finish, ending Tampines' hopes in the region's premier club competition.

The Stags, who had Imran Sahib (34th) and marquee signing Milan Mrdarkovic (113th) sent off, will have to make do with a place in the second-tier AFC Cup for a fourth straight season.

They failed to make it past the group phase of that competition last year and will start off at home against Kitchee on Feb 26.

For the first hour, Tampines looked like a team playing their first competitive fixture of the year. Passes went astray, tackles were mistimed and team-mates were not reading the runs of one another.

The visitors, on the other hand, were comfortable stroking the ball around the artificial turf, having arrived five days before the match to acclimatise.

Their crisp interplay paid off in the 20th minute. Right winger Lee Wai Lim had time to look up and square a perfect pass for Barisic to tap in from close range.

However, the visitors fluffed other gilt-edged chances to extend the lead.

Tampines did not help themselves either. Besides a Norihiro Kawakami header that was cleared off the line, the 1,192-strong crowd had little reason to cheer before the break.

Matters were not helped when winger Imran earned a second caution for a careless studs-up challenge on Kwon Kin Pong.

But the half-time introduction of Paraguayan Luis Closa boosted the hosts, with the playmaker inspiring his side to hold the ball better in the final third.

Just past the hour mark, left-back Shaiful Esah overlapped to good effect to link up with striker Mrdarkovic, who slid the ball home after darting across the box.

Up until then, the former Serbian Olympic team forward looked short of fitness and guile, often outhustled by opposing captain Chan Wai Ho.

The Stags held firm to keep the score level, and also had goalkeeper Hyrulnizam Juma'at to thank for several top-drawer saves that forced extra time.

But it was not to be, as Barisic had the final say on proceedings.

Last night's encounter was the first of a three-step ACL qualifying campaign, that, if successful, will culminate in a spot in the group stage of the competition.

South China next face Chonburi FC away on Sunday. A win over the Thai side will earn them an away clash against China's Beijing Guo'an, the final hurdle before the group stage.

To date the only Singapore side to participate in the ACL was Warriors FC (then known as Singapore Armed Forces FC), who did not advance past the group stage in both 2009 and 2010.

Tampines will aim to bounce back when they open their S-League campaign against Singapore Cup holders Home United on Feb 21.

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