PHOTO: S-League Facebook
Tampines Rovers left it late with two goals in the last five minutes as they beat Hougang United 5-2 in their first home Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League match at Tampines Stadium on Tuesday evening.
They had struck earlier through Ahmad Latiff Khamarudin and a brace from Aleksandar Duric, before Hougang replied through Carlos Delgado and Basit Abdul Hamid to set up a tense final half-hour.
Late goals from Park Yo Seb and Shahdan Sulaiman eventually made the game safe for the Stags and send the 1,524-strong crowd home smiling at the final whistle in an end-to-end encounter.
Tampines head coach Steven Tan kept faith with the same starting eleven that were held to a 1-1 stalemate with Gombak United at Jurong West last Friday.
Aliff Shafaein had not yet cleared his Beep Test and was thus unable to take his place on the matchday squad.
Hougang made a few changes to the side that had beaten Woodlands Wellington 1-0 at home on Valentine’s Day.
Centreback Shariff Abdul Samat cleared his fitness test the previous day, and made his debut competitive start for his new club alongside Japanese defender Fumiya Kobayashi.
Former Tampines Prime League defender Emmeric Ong also made his Hougang debut at rightback, with Ratna Suffian, Lau Meng Meng and Guinean striker Mamadou Diallo relegated to the bench.
The hosts dominated proceedings from the first whistle, and it only took them just before the end of the first quarter-hour to break the deadlock.
Shahdan sent Latiff clear on the right side of the box, and the latter lobbed the ball over onrushing Hougang goalkeeper Fadhil Salim into the net.
Hougang nearly equalised against the run of play midway in the first half when Park misplaced a pass straight to Brazilian forward Diego Gama de Oliveria in his own half.
The Cheetahs man went on a surging run towards the box and unleashed a shot that forced Stags goalkeeper Hassan Sunny to turn it over the bar.
Sensing that the initial soak-and-strike strategy was not working, Hougang head coach Aide Iskandar sent on Diallo in place of Syaqir Sulaiman with only 27 minutes gone for an attacking approach.
But Tampines were awarded a penalty under controversial circumstances on the half-hour mark when referee Zaid Hussein adjudged Hougang leftback Duncan David Elias to have pulled Latiff’s shirt inside his own area.
Duric made no mistake from the resulting spot kick to double his side’s lead.
Hougang were dealt a blow five minutes before half-time when Oliveira pulled his hamstring and had to be substituted by Basit.
After the visitors were almost totally overrun by their hosts in the first half, they came out firing and took early command after the break.
They came close to reducing the deficit just two minutes into the second half, when Fazli Jaffar pounced on a loose ball from Imran Sahib, only for his blast to sail wide.
The Cheetahs were not to be denied three minutes later, after they were awarded a penalty for Hassan’s flooring of Mohd Noor Ali in an attempt to clear a dangerous ball.
Argentine playmaker Delgado stepped up and made no mistake, sending the Tampines goalkeeper the wrong way to make it 2-1.
The Charity Shield winners restored the two-goal cushion almost immediately when an Imran cross on the right found Duric, who made it 3-1 in straightforward fashion.
But Hougang reduced the gap again just before the hour mark when Diallo found Fazli on the left in a counter. Fazli then raced into the box and crossed for an incoming Basit to tap home and set up a tense finale.
That goal gave the visitors some momentum as they pressed and made life uncomfortable for their hosts, who were now pegged back in their half for a sustained period.
Diallo and Delgado were pulling the strings in the Cheetahs attack as their combination allowed their teammates to press the yellow shirts from all sides.
Hassan had to be alert to deny the Argentine the equaliser after Noor Ali set him up on the edge of the box.
That sustained pressure was brief, to the disappointment of the Hougang supporters, as Diallo received another knock to his right leg after a challenge and could not continue.
With all three substitutions done after 70 minutes, a fast-tiring Shariff had to stay on the pitch for the remainder of the game.
His fatigue would open up gaps in an overworked Hougang defence as Tampines seized the initiative again in the closing stages of the match following Diallo’s withdrawal.
Duric had a few opportunities to take home the match ball, but a combination of solid goalkeeping from Hougang skipper Fadhil and poor finishing ensured his tally for the night would stay at two.
Where the veteran forward flapped in front of goal, though, his colleagues picked up. With five minutes to go, a Shahdan corner found Benoit Croissant, whose header at the far post was helped into the net by Park.
The creator turned goalscorer in injury time to seal three points for the hosts when he unleashed an unstoppable drive on the left to end the game 5-2.
Despite the defeat, Aide hailed the Cheetahs’ spirit and never-say-die attitude in giving their opponents a good run for their money.
“Credit to our boys for fighting till the end. They never gave up and went down fighting by playing good attacking football, which was what I wanted to see and the fans also wanted to see,” said the former international captain.
“We took some time to settle down into the game and were discouraged at half-time, but I told the boys there was still 45 minutes to go.
“They responded brilliantly and put Tampines under some pressure with 30 minutes to go.”
He revealed that Shariff would have been replaced by the experienced Ratna had he not been forced to use all his three substitutions early.
“When Diallo came on, he did very well to cause the Tampines defence some problems. But he took that same knock on his right leg and could not continue,” continued the one-time Tampines player.
“I was preparing to send Ratna on for Shariff, who was tiring after taking the Beep Test yesterday. But Diallo’s injury, together with Diego’s earlier knock, forced me to change my game plan.
“Our midfield pushed up, and that put a lot of pressure for Shariff and Fumi, who was still trying to gel together with him.”
Tampines head coach Tan meanwhile urged his side to stop the bad habit of conceding a penalty per game, a uncomfortable trend that began from the Charity Shield clash with Etoile.
“We need to work on improving our concentration at these split-second moments,” he said.
“We have been making some mistakes at the back that have resulted in the penalties conceded.”
That was the sole bugbear for the former Singapore international in what he believed was a positive performance from both sides.
“Hougang came out to attack us after conceding the first goal and put us under quite a bit of pressure in the second half,” he continued.
“At least this was better and more entertaining for the league and fans present, rather than some sides who would rather pack shirts behind the ball and be content to settle either a draw or narrow one-goal loss.
“But we weathered the pressure well and eventually got the goals we needed to kill of the game.”