League Cup: Rams capitulate to gift Stags win
Photography by Ko Po Hui
They were the more threatening side in the first 45 minutes, a surprising fact considering they had lost 0-3 on home soil against the same opponents just one week ago.
But that was not enough for Woodlands Wellington, as a second-half capitulation started off by four minutes of madness left them slumping to a 1-3 defeat to Tampines Rovers in their opening StarHub League Cup Group D game at Clementi Stadium on Friday evening.
Tampines took to the field without three of their bigger names, with Sead Hadzibulic and Benoit Croissant warming the bench and anchor Fahrudin Mustafic omitted from the matchday squad altogether.
In came Noh Alam Shah to make his first start for the club since his return from Indonesian football, while rookie defender Ali Hudzaifi Yusof and Jufri Taha were also drafted into the starting eleven.
If seeing some of those big names step out of starting eleven buoyed Woodlands, they had their own woes too, for an injury to Fabien Lewis further weakened a squad already missing the suspended duo of custodian Ahmadulhaq Che Omar and winger Goh Swee Swee.
Replacements came in the form of second-choice goalkeeper Ang Bang Heng, rookie centreback Zulkarnain Malik and journeyman Farizal Basri.
The first half turned out to be disappointingly poor, considering the high standards the Stags have set for themselves in recent years.
Although they had early opportunities coming from skipper Aleksandar Duric and Jufri, they did not get in front of the Rams goalmouth enough to pose a consistent threat.
Jamil Ali got through on the right on 22 minutes, but his cross was a tad too high for Duric, who could only watch the ball sail over his head.
The lively winger got forward again and latched on to a Duric cutback minutes later, but he was denied by a well-timed block from Daniel Hammond.
Alam Shah was strangely subdued, slicing a header over right at the half-time whistle, although he did show the 392 fans present that he has not lost his old aggressive self, with a strong challenge on Navin Vanu and a fierce word with referee Ahmad A’qashah thereafter.
In contrast, Woodlands were more enterprising as they launched a number of useful counterattacks and nearly capitalised on a couple of mistakes in the Stags backline.
Moon Soon Ho had the best opportunity of the half when he was slipped through by a Hussein Akil pass after only eleven minutes, but his left-footed effort was closed down by Sasa Dreven.
Then winger Guntur Djafril cut inside and had a shot deflected over seconds later.
Moon had another couple of half-chances, first robbing Hudzaifi of the ball on 28 minutes, but the angle proved too tight that time.
The Korean then wriggled through six minutes later, but somehow poked wide of the post.
It was Hammond who had the next opportunity for the visitors as he curled a 20-yard free kick just over, before Vanu’s long-range thump stung Dreven’s palms.
Failure to get something at the end of all those good things was a pity, according to Woodlands assistant coach Clement Teo.
“We were very confident of getting a goal in the first half,” he commented at the post-match interview.
“We were talking about it and telling the players ‘We need to score!’ We had our chances but it was all down to good saves by their keeper.”
Woodlands nearly started the second half in perfect fashion when Vanu went on a surging run down the right before picking out Guntur, whose shot was deflected wide for a corner.
They were soon to rue their inability to put the ball into the back into the net as they fell asleep at the back and were twice caught for it in the space of four minutes.
Firstly on 52 minutes, a defence-splitting ball over the top by Gligor Gligorov picked out Jamil, who seemed to have a lot more to do with a Rams outfielder and custodian Ang converging on him.
The 28-year-old proved a cool head, though, as he produced a cheeky lobbed effort over the head of the onrushing Ang that dipped into goal at the final moment.
Things then went from bad to worse for the Rams as Hammond, of all people, failed to deal with an innocuous long ball, with Duric staying an alert customer.
Ang was left stranded by his captain’s slip-up, leading to the evergreen forward gleefully tapping the ball into an empty net.
Woodlands coach Salim Moin decided to throw on Aloysius Yap and Oswind Suriya Rosaryo to replace Armanizam Dolah and Farizal respectively, and the first switch nearly became a Salim masterstroke as Yap’s 30-yard attempt was blocked by Dreven for a corner.
From there, the cross by Duncan David Elias was only half-cleared to the former Balestier Khalsa man, who thumped home a volley that went through a series of bodies in the Tampines box.
However, that goal on 66 minutes only proved to be a false dawn for Salim’s men as they promptly went to sleep at the back yet again.
Jamil’s cutback two minutes later found Duric, who clinically dispatched his effort past Ang to make it 3-1.
That marked the end of the contest for Woodlands as they could only rue what could have been.
“Coming up against teams like Tampines, they just have the quality (to win it) even without their star striker (Hadzibulic),” noted Teo, looking visibly dejected.
“But there’s just no excuse today, our concentration was the key, and we need to be more consistent (at the back). We can’t afford such mistakes in any sport.
“There’s basically nothing wrong (with the team), we’re trying our ultimate best in terms of work rate. You can see the players are really trying, although some mistakes were made.
“The sad thing is naturally after losing so many games in a row, when you go a goal down your morale just drops.”
Stags coach Steven Tan meanwhile acknowledged that this victory did not come as easily as expected.
“In the first half we were forcing the issue as we were not patient enough,” he assessed.
“We rushed into things trying to get the goal, and once we did that, we made mistakes with the final ball. In the second half we cooled down and managed to find the space.”
Tan also revealed he will continue with his rotation policy for the rest of the League Cup campaign.
“It’s good to let the other players play in the League Cup,” he said.
“Moreover, next week we have four games in one week, and it’s going to be very taxing. I think if all of them play on till the final, they will be ‘punctured’ already!”
The former national winger wrapped up the interview by making light of Alam Shah’s relatively quiet game.
“He’s trying his best; he’s playing with a new set of players now, unlike last time, when he was playing with me!” he quipped.
“But he will be there. You can see he’s still very aggressive and running all around, and that’s Alam Shah for you; if he stays at one corner, there’s something wrong with him!”