Rams blow chances to hand Balestier victory
Muhd Khalis Rifhan
Photography by Aundry Gan
Poor defending and a lack of clinical finishing continued to plague league strugglers Woodlands Wellington as their match against a resurgent Balestier Khalsa side on Friday evening ended in a 0-2 defeat.
The Tigers were not entirely convincing at Woodlands Stadium, but they did enough to secure all three points, with mid-season signing Zdravko Dragicevic and captain Paul Cunningham taking the chances presented to them in the second half.
Woodlands seemed to be doing well enough in the first half, even if they were in their own half most of the time, defending their goal and making last-ditch tackles to keep the game goalless.
Custodian Ahmadulhaq Che Omar could count himself lucky not to concede any goals in the opening 45 minutes, as on many occasions he misjudged the flight of the ball and put his defence under unnecessary pressure.
Five minutes into the game, a long punt up the field by Balestier goalkeeper Zakariah Nerani got the ball way past the Rams’ central pairing of captain Daniel Hammond and Fabien Lewis, and onto Zulkiffli Hassim’s feet.
With only the goalkeeper to beat, Zulkiffli’s indecisiveness allowed Hammond and Lewis to get back into position, and the visitors had to settle for a corner kick instead.
Four minutes later, Ruhaizad Ismail went on a lung-bursting run down the right flank before sending a powerful cross across the face of goal.
The Tigers were within inches of an early celebration, but Syed Thaha’s outstretched leg failed to connect with the ball in the six-yard box.
It was not always one-way traffic, as Woodlands had their fair share of chances of attack, but try as they did, they simply could not find a way past the towering defensive pairing of Cunningham and Goran Subara, restored in the rearguard after playing up front in recent games.
The Rams were left to try taking shots from a distance, sometimes as far as 25 yards out, as Aloysius Yap and Hussein Akil did, but questions must certainly be asked of their shooting accuracy as both did not trouble Zakariah with their efforts.
There were dead-ball opportunities too. 15 minutes into the game, the hosts was presented with a free kick at the edge of the box as Moon Soon Ho was tripped by Balestier defender Jaslee Hatta.
But they failed to make the most of the free kick, as the execution by Duncan David Elias was solidly defended before a man headed the ball away to safety.
None of the Rams came closer to scoring throughout the game than did former Tigers skipper Hammond, who on 19 minutes fired a cracker of a shot inside the box but was thwarted by a Thaha clearance on the line.
Another man who once served the Tigers had a more heroic moment nine minutes from the break, even though it came right after he came very close to becoming the Rams’ villain.
Ahmadulhaq was adjudged to have brought Dragicevic down in the box, but fans seeking a change to the score were disappointed as Cunningham was denied from the spot by the outstretched leg of the custodian.
The Tigers finally got their break three minutes after the interval, as Dragicevic capitalised on Hammond’s inability to clear the ball in his own box.
The Montenegrin slammed the ball past a hapless Ahmadulhaq, and he very nearly did it again with a headed effort on the hour mark, only to see that land on the roof of the net.
With only one goal separating the two sides, Woodlands knew there was still a chance they could squeeze a point, and for a moment on 70 minutes, they seemed like they could do so.
Fans in the Woodlands Stadium stands – all of 277 of them – were brought to their feet as Navin Vanu did well to evade his marker and set himself up for a one-on-one with the Zakariah.
Yet with ample time and space, the one-time Tigers youth trainee failed to pull the trigger, and the visitors were able to race in and reclaim possession.
Rams assistant coach Clement Teo, standing in for the suspended Salim Moin at the head of the Woodlands bench, clearly showed his disbelief as he slammed his fists in the air and his feet on the ground.
And it was game over for the hosts seven minutes from time, as Dragicevic turned from goalscorer to provider and set up a good ball for Cunningham to rise and head into the net.
The evening would not end without drama, though, and Zulkiffli was shown the red card seconds before the final whistle for a lunging tackle on a Woodlands player.
A small scuffle began to erupt as players from both sides were seen having heated exchanges, but thankfully Hammond and Cunningham did well to calm things down and prevent an all-out slugfest.
So Balestier were back to winning ways, but their coach Darren Stewart gave himself little time to enjoy the three points as he was seen rushing straight to the dugout at the final whistle, leaving the post-match interview in the hands of his assistant Kevin Wee.
Wee later apologised for Stewart’s hasty departure, stating that the latter had to attend to some urgent personal matters, before congratulating the team for going back to winning ways after a poor run of form in the league.
“It’s never easy coming back from a row of losses, and for the team to bounce back with a convincing 2-0 win – and we knew we could have scored more in the first half – is a tremendous effort and performance by the players,” he told sleague.com.
Wee added that Dragicevic showed improvement in his play after getting his first senior goal for the Tigers, but insisted that, in the mind of the team’s coaching panel, this was not to say he had been doing poorly in his earlier games.
“The goal scored by Dragicevic has helped him tremendously in the game,” he said.
“As a striker, you always want to hit the back of the net. Anything less than that, and you will start questioning yourself.
“It’s not only tonight that Dragicevic has done well; actually, he had done well too in the past few games, but the only thing was that he could not score. But I guess that as a striker, you are always judged by the numbers of goals you are able to score.”
When asked about Zulkiffli’s sending-off, Wee noted that he would prefer to have the matter settled internally, before declining further comment to the media on that subject.
Over in the Woodlands camp, Teo cut a frustrated figure as he spoke of his side’s third loss on the trot, having witnessed earlier defeats to Albirex Niigata (Singapore) and Tampines Rovers in a busy fortnight that yielded no points and no goals.
“Who will be happy when they lose?” he remarked wryly.
“I get tired of talking about that, but you can see the players tried their best and did well against Balestier. Actually, no, they did very well.
“They played and moved the ball, but mistakes cost us goals and we lost. We got to see where we can move from here.
“We had our chances in the first half, and credit must be given to the boys. They were going forward and wanted it much more than anyone else, but if you don’t take your chances, you pay for it.”
Teo reserved special positive mention for Lebanese forward Akil, whom he felt did well to recover possession for the team and make up for his mistakes over the course of the game.
“This is football; if you lose the ball, you’ve got to chase it back,” he stressed.
“Hussein did lose the ball at times, but he did well to get it back. That’s what we want to see.”