RHB Singapore Cup: Stags win with late goal flurry
Photography by Ko Po Hui
Tampines Rovers have qualified for the RHB Singapore Cup Final after beating Loyola Meralco Sparks of the Philippines 5-0 on aggregate, their passage assured after posting a 3-0 win in the second leg of their semifinals tie at Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday evening.
The bare statistics might have suggested an easy time for the Stags, but the reality was far from that.
Carrying a 2-0 advantage from the first leg, the Stags had to wait until 78 minutes in, when their opponents were just beginning to release the defensive shackles and go all out in attack, for the opening goal to be scored.
Thanks to a well-taken brace by Aleksandar Duric and a stoppage-time third goal from Imran Sahib, Tampines put paid to any hopes the visitors might have entertained about overcoming the deficit from the first meeting at Clementi.
The win came at a cost, however, with two Tampines players receiving bookings that render them ineligible for the big day on 28 October, and a couple of others were skating on thin ice towards the end of what turned into a spiteful encounter over those closing stages.
If nothing else, though, this game marked the first time that Stags star Noh Alam Shah had started a game since returning from Indonesia in mid-season.
Although he did not score and all three of the Tampines goals came after he had been replaced in the final quarter-hour by Jamil Ali, the former Singapore international seemed to always be at the heart of much of what Tampines were doing on the night.
Chasing a through pass in only the tenth minute, there was no questioning Alam Shah’s commitment as he clattered into the onrushing Ref Delany Cuaresma, who raced out to ensure he got to the ball first.
Neither man was prepared to pull out of the challenge, but the goalkeeper came off second best to his pugnacious opponent and required immediate medical attention.
Cuaresma was eventually mended and finished the match, for good measure, but if that challenge did nothing else, it acted as an informal introduction for the Filipinos to a man they had never met in the previous match three days earlier.
By the time he was replaced, he had done much to reinforce his combative reputation, and might have been fortunate not to get any yellow cards himself.
Now that the Stags have reached the final, it will be interesting to see how SAFFC react to having the 32-year-old face them, not for the first time in such a context at Jalan Besar.
His presence alone could help swell the crowd well beyond the mere 1,248 who attended this semifinals game, including many who were backing the Filipinos.
Loyola might have had to do without two of their Korean stars, both suspended after first-leg indiscretions, but they showed good organisation and tight passing skills as they tried to claw their way back from two goals down.
Tampines meanwhile mostly kept things tight against a team that had more to offer going forward than when sitting back.
After Alam Shah had clipped the ball over the bar on 13 minutes from an excellent Gligor Gligorov cross, much of the attacking was being done by the men in orange.
A move involving Mark Hartmann, Phil Younghusband and Jang Jo Won on 17 saw the latter offer only a weak shot at Stags goalkeeper Sasa Dreven from close range.
James Younghusband, back to skipper the side after illness had prevented him starting in the first leg, then picked up a cross from his brother Phil on 27 before volleying from 25 yards out, but his direction was wayward.
When Andres Gonzales got on the end of a left-sided corner a moment later, though, his accuracy was far better, and it needed a superb save from Dreven, diving full length to his left, to maintain his team’s two-goal advantage.
Similarly Tampines defender Fahrudin Mustafic, who had dropped back from midfield to replace the suspended Benoit Croissant, did enough by way of a clean block to stop Phil Younghusband’s first-half volley from finding the back of the net.
Alam Shah had two shots in rapid succession that Cuaresma did well to save after 36 minutes, and the first half continued to see the visitors showing plenty, but just not doing enough to lead for the evening.
Jang on 39 minutes was a clear example, when he scooped a good chance over the bar after a solid run down the left by the younger of the Younghusbands and a pass that sat up nicely for the Korean winger.
As the second half began to gather momentum, prudence became more of a byword than all-out attack as the Stags made extending their first-leg lead less and less of a priority.
With Gligorov and fullback Anaz Hadee booked, and therefore out of the final, Tampines withdrew their heavy artillery in Sead Hadzibulic and Alam Shah, and even had Duric dropping back to defend from time to time.
But in unleashing Jamil, whose understanding with Duric had been remarkable since their days together at SAFFC, the Stags gave their opponents more than might have been bargained for.
On 78 minutes, that understanding proved significant in breaking the deadlock for the evening.
Jamil burst clear down the left and delivered to the feet of Duric at the near post, and the big man took his time to shake off his markers, turn sharply and finish powerfully, low and from a very tight angle.
That meant virtually the end of the Loyola challenge, with a 3-0 aggregate and only ten or more minutes remaining.
For all of Loyola’s enthusiasm in seeking a goal to please their adoring fans, that goal simply would not come for them as tempers began to flare.
But that did not bother Jamil and Duric in the least.
The Stags skipper fed a nice pass to his wingman on 81 minutes, and after exchanging passes with Imran, Jamil dragged his shot narrowly wide.
The 28-year-old made amends three minutes later after another burst down the right set up a scoring opportunity which he spurned, playing the ball instead to the near post for an onrushing Duric.
This time the angle was not tight at all, and although the defensive cover was much stronger, it was not strong enough to prevent the 42-year-old tidying up for his second goal of the evening with a superbly-timed finish.
Five minutes into stoppage time, Jamil rounded off his fine evening by giving Imran his chance to score with another piece of fine wing play and a ball laid back that was smartly finished by the Stags No.11.
It was as emphatic a way to finish a match as anyone could ask, and the Filipinos, both in the stands and on the pitch, could do little more than put their hands up and admit Tampines were simply far too strong.
Loyola team manager Joseph Vincent Santos, once again acting as the club’s spokesman, expressed his satisfaction with the effort given the absence of two key players.
He further added that everyone was looking forward to coming back to Singapore for the third-place playoff against Gombak United and a chance at the bronze medal.
“Once again we created chances, just as we did in the first match, but we could not finish them off,” he noted.
“We paid the price when we threw more men forward later on in the game, leaving ourselves exposed to the counterattack. But at 0-3 down the situation was no good for us, so we felt we had to go for it.”
Tampines coach Tay Ping Kee was seen dwelling on the remaining S.League games his charges face in the coming weeks.
He offered little comment on Alam Shah’s performance, though what little he said appeared largely sympathetic.
“Alam Shah hasn’t had much game time, so I could understand why his finishing was a little off today,” said the former Singapore international.
“Our squad is so thin, and now we lose Gligor and Anaz for the final. That is going to be tough for us.
“Our other fixtures are heavily spread out too, which makes life difficult for us either side of the Cup Final. Playing SAFFC in the S.League as well as the Cup is far from ideal, but we’ll see what happens when the final comes.”