Tampines Rovers’ blushes spared by keeper’s mistake

SINGAPORE - Just what was he thinking?

With his side just minutes away from a win in a top-of-the-table clash against league leaders Tampines Rovers, Albirex Niigata goalkeeper Hiroaki Hara decided to race to the edge of his penalty area to gather an innocuous-looking cross.

The 35-year-old shot-stopper, however, misjudged the flight of the ball completely and ended up punching it straight into the path of Tampines' top marksman Aleksandar Duric.

Duric gleefully stroked the ball home into an empty net to level the score, while Hara could only bury his face into the field at Clementi Stadium.

The late goal meant Tampines hung on to their eight-point lead at the top of the SLeague. A win for second-placed Albirex would have put pressure on the Stags, who, after last night, are still heavy favourites to bag their third S-League title on the trot.

Albirex coach Koichi Sugiyama, however, refused to criticise Hara for his costly mistake.

When asked if he expected better from his experienced goalkeeper, the coach said: "I think so, but he was unlucky. "Hara did his best and saved many shots tonight, so I cannot blame him. It was an accident."

In what was a see-saw match, Tampines raced to a two-goal lead within 23 minutes. Duric put Tampines ahead on 18 minutes while Mustafic Fahrudin thumped home a header off a corner five minutes later.

But the Stags then seemed to relax and were punished as Albirex wiped out their two-goal advantage before the break. Kento Nagasaki pulled a goal back on 31 minutes and Kazuki Sakamoto headed in the equaliser just seconds before the halftime whistle.

Third goal

The Japanese outfit pushed on for the third goal after the break and got it when Shingo Suzuki sent a curler into the far corner of Ridhuan Barudin's goal in the 75th minute.

With the Tampines players looking like they were out of ideas, Albirex seemed set for a priceless win. But Hara put an end to that dream with his late error.

Tampines coach Tay Peng Kee was a relieved man at the final whistle.

"Sometimes you need that little bit of luck to draw or win games," he said with a grin, referring to Hara's clanger. "I'm still a bit tense now, but at least we did not allow Albirex to close the gap. "I was actually a bit surprised they played very well tonight, because they've been playing exhibition football in their last three matches."

Sugiyama, whose team failed to score as they drew two and lost one of their last three games, insisted the race for the SLeague title was not over yet.

While he acknowledged last night's lost opportunity, he said: "I'm not happy, but I am satisfied because our players put in a great performance and we played true to our philosophy.

"But there are still seven games to go, and I'm happy we can play against Tampines one more time (in the S-League's new "half-round") before the end of the season."

Meanwhile, in last night's other match, an 81st-minute strike by Tales dos Santos helped Brunei DPMM to a 1-1 draw against Balestier Khalsa at the Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium in Bandar Seri Begawan. Qiu Li had put the visitors in front via a penalty, after 16 minutes.

TAMPINES: Ridhuan Barudin, Anaz Hadee (Jufri Taha 68), Kunihiro Yamashita, Seiji Kaneko, Ruzaini Zainal, Firdaus Kasman, Mustafic Fahrudin (Imran Sahib 76), Shahdan Sulaiman, Vitor Ladeiras, Jamil Ali (Khairul Amri 46), Aleksandar Duric

ALBIREX: Hiroaki Hara, Tatsuya Sase, Kento Fukuda, Yuki Ichikawa, Itsuki Yamada, Masatake Sato, Takeshi Nagasawa, Kento Nagasaki, Bruno Castanheira, Shingo Suzuki, Kazuki Sakamoto

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