Australian custodian Justin Pasfield dropped an innocuous cross on his debut for the only goal of the game, with opposite number Siddiq Durimi producing a string of fine saves
With his team trailing 1-0 and time running out fast, Tampines Rovers goalkeeper Justin Pasfield gestured to coach Rafi Ali as a late free-kick was awarded against Geylang International.
The 1.9-metre tall Australian, who was making his debut, looked desperate to atone for a mistake that gifted the Eagles the lead minutes earlier. Pasfield had made two fine saves prior to that, but undid his good work when he dropped a harmless cross from Yuki Ichikawa and saw the ball bounce off himself and into goal.
But there was to be no redemption for the 29-year-old, who was waved forward to join a packed box. While his presence caused confusion, Tampines failed to take advantage as Noh Alam Shah's header was saved and Mustaqim Manzur hacked Kunihiro Yamashita's follow-up effort off the line.
The Eagles held on for victory, but Rafi refused to lay blame on his new custodian and revealed that Pasfield apologised to the team “first thing” after the game. The ex A-League player was one of three new imports to be fielded along with Jozef Kaplan and Jake Butler, the latter praised for a solid showing by Rafi.
The former Singapore international also admitted he "didn't know how" his team failed to score despite creating numerous chances, but was nonetheless pleased with their efforts.
"We hit the post, we had a disallowed goal... We were dominating the game with 70 or 80 per cent [of possession]," Rafi pointed out.
"We showed fight. I am very proud of these boys, they played their hearts out and I can’t ask for more. I told them if we continue playing like this, we’ll get the results."
It was not difficult to see where Rafi was coming from, with Eagles goalkeeper Siddiq Durimi enjoying a contrast in fortunes to his opposite number.
The 25-year-old fumbled a few catches in the first half, but was in irresistible form after the break to deny the defending champions time and again. First, he tipped away two long-range belters from former Geylang star Kaplan in the 58th and 71st minutes.
Siddiq then produced an astonishing double save moments later. Alam Shah saw his free header from six yards parried away at full stretch, but managed to get to the rebound. From a tight angle, the striker hammered the ball towards the far corner, only for the goalkeeper to recover brilliantly and pull off a one-handed stop.
The late save from Alam Shah at the death helped Geylang hang on, although they were fortunate with their winner. Their only genuine opportunities came through Ridhuan Muhammad and Aliff Shafaein in either half, who were both denied by Pasfield, while Alam Shah also saw a header ruled out for a dubious offside call.
Eagles boss Jorg Steinebrunner was banished to the stands as well for the final 20 minutes after expressing displeasure to the referee, but could afford a smile at the final whistle.
“We were not fully lucky,” he asserted. “In the first half, we played quite well defensively and Tampines didn’t have clear-cut chances. We could have gone ahead and we made life difficult for them.
“The goal was a stroke of luck, but up until then we had worked very hard and sometimes in football, you make your luck. At the end of the day, I would say the 1-0 is desereved, because we created it.”
The victory ended a six-game winless streak in the league and a run of three consecutive losses, and Steinebrunner paid tribute to his players for their teamwork.
“We were just not clinical and decisive enough in the past games, which could have gone either way,” the German pointed out. “We still have a long way to go, but what is happening [now in training] is encouraging.
“The players have good character and identity and we want to compete for the top six.”
It was Rafi’s first defeat since taking over from Salim Moin, but the 41-year-old is confident they can only improve ahead of next week's pivotal clash with leaders Brunei DPMM.
“We must be a little bit more composed and learn how to open up the opponents’ defence,” he said. “With these three new players coming in, we can only get better movement-wise and attacking-wise, it’s only the understanding [that is currently lacking].
"We won’t bow down and say we are finished; we are never finished. We have to beat Brunei (DPMM) and hopefully get back on track."