Whether they knew Albirex Niigata (Singapore) head coach Koichi Sugiyama was looking on anxiously in the stands is anyone’s guess, but their grip on the trophy they lifted last year could only have become tighter with this result, which was collected at a canter.
Even though captain and prolific scorer Aleksandar Duric was reported to be carrying an injury, his coach Tay Peng Kee raised eyebrows by fielding him from the start, rather than take the risk of using Noh Alam Shah, who has yet to start since a mid-season return from Indonesia.
Duric not only lasted the entire 90 minutes, he presented his coach and the fans with two superb strikes inside the opening 15 minutes to set up the simple victory.
Even if the big No.9 had a few other opportunities he could not quite convert, it was a sharpshooter and sharp finisher who turned up to reward his team for their fine assists.
That left Tay vindicated for his decision to field the league’s all-time top goalscorer.
“Aleks is a great inspiration to the rest of the team,” he said at the post-match press conference.
“He’s definitely injured, but he wants to play, and the team spirit is so good now. There’s no longer any quarrelling on the pitch when things don’t go well.
“The team’s also fitter now, but it’s not possible to get them much fitter than this at this late stage of the season.”
There was one worry for the Stags at the end of the evening, however, as Fahrudin Mustafic spent the last five minutes of the game off the field after sustaining a groin injury.
“He got a yellow card, so he would have been suspended for the next game on Saturday (against Gombak United) anyway, but I think he could be out for a couple of weeks,” Tay revealed.
When asked if the Singapore international could return in time for the team’s RHB Singapore Cup semifinals clashes with Filipino side Loyola Meralco Sparks, Tay suggested he may miss at least one of the two games as well.
At least the evening began much more brightly for Mustafic and his colleagues, who started the match at a fast and furious pace, so much so that the Young Lions appeared not to know what hit them.
Although the home side had been playing reasonably well until recently, they had to see this one out without their regular goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari, who reported sick, and missed a couple of others who have been claimed by the demands of National Service.
Having talismanic striker Shahfiq Ghani suspended for this match hardly helped matters, though the defence was hit more badly than anywhere else.
From their early assaults on goal, Tampines looked very much the team that would score first, and so it soon proved.
All of the frontrunners were working together, and that included wide man Imran Sahib and support players Ahmed Fahmie, Ahmad Latiff Khamarudin and Gligor Gligorov.
Imran had the first serious chance of the match in the third minute, after a sustained period of pressure had seen the ball played back to him around the edge of the area, right in front of goal.
From 20 yards out the winger, who usually lays on the passes for his teammates, had a dig of his own for once, and it needed a fingertip save from Young Lions stand-in goalkeeper Neezam Aziz to deny Imran an opening goal on this occasion.
Duric fired wide at the far post from the ensuing corner, but with the Stags giving everything from the start a goal seemed inevitable – and it duly came in the sixth minute.
Attacking from the right just inside the penalty area, Sead Hadzibulic niftily laid the ball across to Duric on the left, who stood remarkably unmarked, and the 42-year-old struck a first-time shot that rocketed into the roof of the net.
The Stags captain fired wide again a minute later after some more rapid approach play by a very mobile Tampines team.
Notably, their game seemed simple enough to the untrained eye, though that was perhaps because the players have developed a formula that makes everything seem that way – a result of years of playing together.
The Young Lions did try to attack, and their coach Robin Chitrakar made it clear after the game that he was happy that his team had done that often, but they really had no answer on a day when Duric decided to roll back the years and play like a man ten years younger, if not more so.
After Young Lions captain Hafiz Abu Sujad had a shot that went well over in the tenth minute, it was only another five before Duric claimed his second.
This time Latiff fed the ball through the middle towards the edge of the area, where Fahmie pushed the ball on towards Duric, slightly to his left but pushing on to the fringes of the six-yard area.
The veteran then drew Neezam and finished as clean as a whistle, scoring the kind of goal he has scored so often in his long and distinguished career – but it was a true team goal all the same, and one well worth witnessing.
The Young Lions kept plugging away, but despite all the efforts of Benjamin Lee and Zulfahmi Arifin in particular, they could find no way through a Stags defence that had Mustafic covering superbly for the suspended Benoit Croissant.
Tampines made a half-time change, bringing Jamil Ali on for Fahmie, while the Young Lions did not make a change until they had gone 0-3 down just after the hour mark.
This time it was not a team goal, but a piece of typical individual magic from Latiff, who spent much of the game in the team’s engine room but often hinted at his ability to do more.
The 33-year-old unleashed a signature special from 30 yards out that went like a tracer bullet into the roof of the net, virtually signalling the end of the contest.
The Young Lions almost immediately introduced Faris Ramli and Nazrul Ahmad Nazari, hoping to salvage something from the game, but apart from winning a few free kicks and corners, their attempts on goal were few and far between.
Faris saw his effort go just over the bar from 20 yards out on 81 minutes, but for the most part the game was still going the visitors’ way.
Duric in particular was playing as though his legs were as flexible as when he had started the match, chasing after everything in an attempt to grab his elusive hat-trick.
Alam Shah, by contrast, came on for the last half-hour, but he was unable to make much of an impression until the dying moments, when his angled shot from the right was booted off the line by Young Lions skipper Hafiz.
It left the enigmatic No.8 still searching for his first goal since making the proverbial prodigal’s return, but that hardly seemed to bother Tay, who had bigger targets in his sights.
“I think we should be able to win (the title) now, but I really can’t say that just yet,” he said, when asked how close his charges were to being declared the season’s big winners.
“The Albirex game next Wednesday may settle it.
“The team’s playing with more confidence now, but the injury to Fahrudin is a concern. Not so much for the next game, but the one after that.
“Playing four games in eleven days is very difficult, and I’ve never thought it a good idea for any team to play four games in eleven days. So we will have to see how the next games go.”
Article taken from sleague.com, written by Paul Green
CYL Line up:
Neezam Abd Aziz, Faritz Abdul Hameed, Sirina Camara, Emmeric Ong, Fazli Ayob (Nazrul Nazari 65″), Hafiz Abu Sujad, Shamil Sharif (Faris Ramli 63″), Zulfahmi Arifin, Benjamin Lee, Sherif El-Masri, Jonathan Toto (Fareez Farhan 71″)