League Cup: Draw sends Bulls through
Photography by Aundry Gan
Gombak United joined visiting Tampines Rovers in the last eight of the StarHub League Cup after the two sides played out a 1-1 stalemate in the final Group D match at Jurong West Stadium on Thursday evening.
The home side took the lead close to the quarter-hour mark through Julien Durand following a calamitous piece of miscommunication in the Tampines box, but an Ismail Yunos own goal on 63 minutes ensured a share of points for both teams.
It also meant Woodlands Wellington, who had already completed their group obligations, will now move to the secondary plate competition, where they will meet Balestier Khalsa in their semifinals at Toa Payoh Stadium on Monday evening.
Gombak made several changes to the side that drew 1-1 with the Rams at Woodlands Stadium earlier in the week, where young forward Iqbal Hamid Hussain collected two yellow cards and thus had to sit out this fixture against the Stags.
Another promising rookie, Samuel Benjamin Nadarajah, was recalled to the starting lineup alongside imports Durand and Chris Anderson, while Mustaqim Manzur and Fairoz Hasan were named among the substitutes following their exertions at Woodlands.
Tampines roped in Singapore international Fahrudin Mustafic in place of Anaz Hadee, who was put on the bench as a precaution following his second-half injury during their 3-1 home win over Woodlands last week.
Despite keeping Sead Hadzibulic and Benoit Croissant under wraps for the second successive League Cup fixture, the Stags, who have not won this competition, fielded a promising attacking lineup of Noh Alam Shah, Aleksandar Duric and Jamil Ali.
Still searching for his first goal since his loan move from Indonesian side Persib Bandung in mid-season, 31-year-old Alam Shah nearly opened accounts after four minutes when his diving header off a corner flew over the bar.
With the league champions having the early upper hand in possession, the opening goal on 14 minutes by Gombak stunned everyone as it came against the run of play.
An initial shot from 17-year-old Samuel Benjamin was fumbled inside the six-yard box by Stags goalkeeper Sasa Dreven. The miscommunication between the young Croat and his defenders allowed Durand to snatch the loose ball, round Dreven and slot home from a tight angle.
The opening goal fired up the 2008 League Cup winners as they launched successive waves of counterattacking runs in their attempt to seal top spot and home ground advantage for Sunday’s quarterfinals.
Winger K. Vikraman was in very inspired form as he led their attacks through the left side in the first half, exploiting the gaps created by a lacklustre Tampines defence.
But the 29-year-old was to be denied further glory as Dreven made amends for his early howler with superb stops off him and Durand to keep the score low at half-time.
With neither team wanting to see their quarterfinals hopes sabotaged, both sides played a more cautious game after the break.
As was the case in the first half, Alam Shah once again came close early in the second half when another trademark diving header off a Gligor Gligorov free kick flew over.
Tampines were not be denied soon after, but their equaliser came more from an unexpected gift from Ismail than their efforts to get themselves back into contention.
Without a yellow shirt nearby, the rightback intended to head a ball back to Zaiful Nizam, but the custodian was caught in an awkward position inside the box and could only see the header loop into an unguarded net.
While a stalemate would have suited both sides, referee Yazeen Buhari left everyone bemused when he gave a direct free kick on the edge of the Gombak box after Walid Lounis was caught handling the ball – though everyone in the stands saw that the foul was inside the box.
Mustafic came close from the resulting free kick, but Zaiful was more than equal to the task, diving low to palm the set-piece away at the far post.
Another darting run from the left by Vikraman set the ball up for an unmarked Hafiz Rahim on the inside right of the box to finish, but Dreven was spot-on with his save off that effort.
That was to be the final major piece of action in the match as both teams were content to settle for a share of the points and confirmed their places in the quarterfinals come the final whistle.
Tampines head coach Steven Tan was relieved his side held on for a point and keep home advantage for the last eight, even though an upset loss for Albirex Niigata (Singapore) at Bedok in the evening’s other match meant the defending champions would be their visitors on Sunday.
“I think the draw is a fair result for both teams,” commented the former Singapore winger.
“We looked quite lethargic today, but we were already through, otherwise we could have played a lot better and faster than tonight.”
He also admitted the hosts did not make things easy for them on the pitch, which contributed to their lukewarm efforts to keep the point.
“The field is very heavy and uneven, which makes it difficult for us to play our game,” he added.
“Gombak also did not ease up in the space they could afford to us. With the twin factors, we made several mistakes in our passing.”
His Gombak counterpart K. Balagumaran expressed amusement at how much reserve the opponents were keeping for later games.
“From their lineup, we could see that Tampines have the desire to want to win and finish top,” he said.
“For us, we needed a draw and simply achieved what we wanted.
“Thus I am somewhat surprised that despite fielding good players, they didn’t come hard at us as often as they usually would.”
The first-year top-flight coach also pointed out a different strategy he used from the one he deployed against Woodlands.
“With most of the boys fasting, it is going to be challenging for them to keep up the pace and intensity for much of the game,” he revealed.
“I tried using the fasting boys at Woodlands and brought on players like Durand and Chris as substitutes, but they took a while to warm up to the game.
“Thus, I chose the other way round and fielded as many non-fasting players as I could this time because they would have more energy to last the distance.”
With a visit to Bedok looming over the weekend following their second successive draw of the tournament, Balagumaran chose to see the lighter side of the own goal that split the spoils.
“We were doing well but didn’t expect the own goal,” he remarked.
“After the game, Vicky joked to Ismail that he should collect a goal bonus from the office immediately!”