Free flowing Tampines juggle the pressure well
Almost 2,000 fans made the May Day trip to Jalan Besar Stadium to watch the vital group game. News of Ha Noi FC's demolition of Naga World earlier in the afternoon had already filtered through to the nervous crowd, making them aware that defeat would see Tampines Rovers drop to second in the group. The nerves didn't last long.
Barely 2 minutes into the game Khairul Amri got behind the defence and found himself on the end of a long ball over the top. The experienced striker took the ball first time on the volley and, although his connection was far from perfect, the ball squirmed under goalkeeper Wai Lin Aung and into the back of the net. The surprise of the crowd was reflected by the electronic score board which promptly crashed and stubbornly refused to show the correct score for much of the first half. 1-0 to the Stags, nerves abated and thoughts turned to how many goals they can get to address the goal difference deficit with Hanoi.
Clearly encouraged by this early success, Tampines continued to employ the long ball to good effect, pumping the ball into the channels and encouraging Jordan Webb and Ryutaro Megumi to get behind the full backs and get crosses in. This tactic was helped by the fact that Yangon United played with a high defensive line, crowding the midfield and stifling the creativity of the usually impressive Zehrudin Mehmedović who had a quiet first half before being replaced at the interval. However, both Webb and Megumi were able to take advantage of this high line and provided a number of great crosses which were not converted. Amri was guilty of missing at least two chances when it seemed easier to score than miss. Yangon were still dangerous and showed glimpses of what they can do on the counter attack, carving out a number of good chances and keeping the likes of experienced centre back Daniel Bennett on his toes and testing Syazwan Buhari, most notably with a fizzing free-kick from Brazilian playmaker Vinicius Miller which must have stung the keepers fingers as he palmed it clear.
The sigh of relief when Amri finally converted one of his opportunities just before half-time was almost audible. The goal came from a rare Tampines corner. The cross found the industrious Yasir Hanapi at the far post, who perhaps should have taken his shot first time. Instead, he took an extra touch which gave the Yangon keeper enough time to make a decent save. Fortunately for the Stags, the rebound fell to Amri, who made no mistake for once and slammed home his second. It was the perfect time to score. 2-0 at the interval and apparently game over.
Defense still suspect for the Stags
Yangon apparently hadn't read the script. The Blue Lions came flying out of the traps as the second half began, opening up the game. Taking their lead from the Stags, Yangon started to exploit the flanks and showed once again how important crosses are at this level. The dangerous Maung Maung Lwin was allowed to get to the byline and float a teasing cross into the box. Soe Min Naing still had a lot to do. The cross was slightly behind him but showing great athleticism, the Myanmar international was able to wrap his foot around the ball and send an unstoppable volley into the net. The crowd were shocked, and so apparently were the Tampines defenders. 10 minutes later Maung Lwin capitalised on comical defending to lob the ball into the back of the net. 2-2, 15 minutes left.
To Tampines' credit, they did, eventually, retake the lead. Surprisingly however, they continued to push for more, leaving themselves open to Yangon counter attacks. With 85 minutes gone, Kaung Htet Soe powered down the right and delivered a great ball for the onrushing Kyaw Zin Oo, who had started his run into the box from his own half. There was a strange inevitability about it; Madhu saw him coming, the crowd saw him coming, but the Yangon winger still somehow got ahead of the centre half to get on the end of the cross and equalise for the visitors. 3-3, 2 minutes left.
It was a calamitous collapse, particularly for a side looking to make a real impression on the continent this year. The usually reliable Dan Bennett, so often the calming presence at the back, seemed out of sorts, and struggled to cope with the pace of the Yangon widemen. Truth be told, barring 23-year-old Amirul Adli, it was an ageing Tampines backline, with the 41-year-old Bennett partnered with 30-year-old Irwan Shah and 28-year-old Madhu Mohana, who is no spring chicken himself. Questions to be answered for Gavin Lee and Kadir Yahaya, particularly if Tampines reach the latter stages of the competition.
Wingers Webb and Megumi key for Tampines
Predictably after conceding the 2nd goal, Tampines went on the attack. Also, predictably, they continued with long balls into the channels for Webb and Megumi to chase. It was obvious that without the creativity of Mehmedovic the Stags could not build much in the middle of the park. Luckily, when you have such quality on the flanks it doesn't matter too much. Tampines' third followed the now familiar pattern. This time it was Megumi who got the cross in for Amri who tried his best to avoid scoring by hitting the bar with his header. However, luck was on the side of the striker this time, the ball rebounded off the bar landed in front of the line but, rather than bouncing clear, decided to defy the laws of physics and spin over the line. A hat trick for Amri and a 3-2 lead with 10 minutes left. Tellingly, the applause for the 'hat trick hero' was somewhat muted when he was substituted a few minutes later.
As the equalizer from Kyaw went in for 3-3, a pensioner sat next to me sighed, stood up and left. I rationalised that a draw was still a good result, and didn't really change the group too much. But the game had one last twist. Tampines sent everyone forward, searching for a goal. It was the two full backs who combined to snatch the winner. Madhu looked desperate to atone for his earlier mistake and found himself making a nuisance of himself on the edge of the box. The full back won the ball well and flicked a header over the defence, finding the well timed run of Irwan Shah who had drifted in from the left. The left back once again showed his eye for a goal and calmly tucked the ball away for his fourth of the season and Tampines fourth of the night. 4-3, 0 minutes left. A fantastic game and a great advert for the local Singaporean football scene.
Tampines created more chances and overall looked the better side on the night but it still feels like they needed a bit of luck to win this one. They looked a little one dimensional at times and rely a lot on the pace and creativity of their wingers. At least two of the goals they conceded were a result of slightly dodgy defending and there was a little bit of naivety in the way they couldn't calm the game down in the second half and hold onto the lead. Having said that there is no doubt that this is another huge hurdle overcome by the Stags who sit top of a difficult group. A complete reversal on last year's AFC Cup performance which saw them collect only 1 point. The memories of last season's defensive football are being banished by the exciting brand of play under Gavin Lee. They will need to improve defensively if they are to get a result against free scoring Hanoi in the next game. If they avoid defeat against the Vietnamese champions they will top the group. I predict the Stags will score in Vietnam, just like they have scored in every game of the Cup so far. Whenever I've seen Tampines this season they have looked incredibly dangerous up front, this was on show again last night. Maybe I was spoiled by watching Home United win the ASEAN Zonal final of the AFC Cup last year but I'm starting to think Tampines could repeat the feat.