A Khairul Amri hat trick and a 91st minute goal from Irwan Shah settled a nervy affair for Tampines Rovers as they overcame Yangon United 4-3 at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday. The Stags had raced into a 2-0 lead just before halftime, but second half goals from Soe Min Naing and Maung Maung Lwin saw Yangon haul themselves level again. Amri and Kyaw Zin Oo then traded strikes before Irwan had the last laugh to send the Stags fans into raptures.
In what was a must-win for Tampines following Hanoi FC's emphatic 5-1 win over Nagaworld earlier, the Stags duly delivered to set up a final day showdown with the Tím Vàng at the Hang Day Stadium in Vietnam, which will determine which of these sides tops the group and qualifies automatically for the knockout stages of this season's AFC Cup.
Lively Stags thrill fans at Jalan Besar
It's probably fair to say that Tampines have been almost completely overhauled under the new coaching duo of Gavin Lee and Kadir Yahaya. Working with largely the same group of players who had dished out a rather dull brand of football under Jurgen Raab last season, the Stags have now earned 13 points in their AFC Cup group with one match still to be played. For context, they mustered just one point last season, a drab goalless draw with Johor Darul Ta'zim.
Having scored 14 goals already in the Singapore Premier League this season, Lee and Kadir have done well to replicate that attacking brand of football in Asia, and the game against Yangon was no different. Within just two minutes, Khairul Amri raced onto a through ball and volleyed past Wai Lin Aung, and it looked set to be another blowout win for the Stags under the lights.
After fluffing a series of chances, Tampines and Amri did finally add to their tally in the 43rd minute, with the Singapore international firing home from inside the area to give Tampines breathing space before halftime. Cue joyous celebrations amongst the players and the 1800 in attendance at Jalan Besar, who knew just how costly those missed chances could prove to be.
Things so nearly went awry after the break, however. With Yangon doing well to drag themselves back into the game after some slack Tampines defending, Amri added a third with a header on 77 minutes, before Irwan's late winner papered over the cracks in what was a poor defensive performance to say the least.
Tampines need to be more clinical
Tampines may have scored four goals and Amri three, but it could, and probably should have been six or seven. It might seem strange to criticize a player after he's scored a hat-trick, but Khairul Amri will need to be more lethal in front of goal if Tampines are to make their mark on the continent this season.
In the 30th minute with the score poised finely at 1-0, the brilliant Ryutaro Megumi fizzed in a delicious ball which looked destined to be tapped in for Tampines' second. However, the veteran striker somehow conspired to skew his shot high and wide with the goalkeeper already out of the equation. Unfortunately, it was a sign of things to come for him.
Just four minutes later, Megumi again whipped in an excellent cross which presented Amri with an open goal just 6 yards out. On the slide, the 34-year-old got under the ball, and sent it flying into the swimming complex behind the goal. That should've been 3-0 and game over, but Tampines' wastefulness had left Yangon with a fighting chance.
Fast forward to the second half with the score at 2-0. Megumi (again!) did brilliantly to skin his fullback before whipping in a teasing ball for Amri at the far post. We'd heard this song before, however, and Tampines' number 19 could only slice the ball well wide. The Japanese winger fell to his knees with his head in his hands, and one can hardly blame him.
Tampines weren't made to pay for their profligacy in front of goal, but it's dead set that the likes of Ceres-Negros, who have won five out of five, or the swashbuckling PSM Makassar, would punish them. Having missed a bucketload of presentable opportunities over the course of their AFC Cup campaign this season, the Stags desperately need to fix up in the attacking department.
A new era for Tampines in Asia
Having had the reputation for being dominant domestically but struggling to mix it with Southeast Asia's big boys, Tampines have done well to set things right this season. With 13 points from a possible 15 and a draw against Hanoi being enough to secure top spot, it's been a remarkable turnaround for a side which conceded 14 goals and scored just five in the group stages last season.
With the untimely demise of reigning ASEAN Zonal champions Home United following defeat at PSM Makassar, it could be Tampines' time to fly the flag for Singapore in the AFC Cup. With the quality of player they've got in the likes of Megumi, Zehrudin Mehmedovic and Shahdan Sulaiman, you wouldn't put it past them to reach the Zonal Final, and perhaps go even further. Exciting times for the boys from Our Tampines Hub.
Tampines and Hanoi will square off on the 15th of May, as both sides look to secure top spot, and automatic qualification for the next stage.