Stags' S.League crowning delayed by battling Tigers

The hosts put in a determined showing despite missing many players and the defending champions were indebted to goalkeeper Andre Martins for helping them to a share of the spoils

Tampines Rovers will have to wait a little longer before they can declare themselves 2013 Great Eastern-YEO’s S.League champions, after they drew a blank at Toa Payoh Stadium on Tuesday night against a very much under-strength Balestier Khalsa.

The 0-0 stalemate came after a fairly pedestrian performance by the title holders, which contrasted strongly with a resilient effort from the home side.

Now 12 points clear of Albirex Niigata and with a superior goal difference, Tampines still need a point from one of their remaining four games to confirm their title claims.

Although Balestier have a Singapore Cup semi-final game coming up against Home United in a week’s time, they also needed points in the league to push for a higher ranking, so both competitions were of equal importance to the Toa Payoh-based club at this stage.

While Tampines had everyone except the suspended Firdaus Kasman available for selection, Balestier took on the Stags with six key players out injured and fielded a bare-bones side, which knuckled down to the task of facing the champions-elect and almost walked away with the three points in the process.

Only a superb goalkeeping performance from the Stags’ Portuguese number one, Andre Martins, denied the Tigers a victory on a night when Tampines were far from their best.

It was a game that was played with total commitment, yet most of the chances came via free-kicks or following corners, rather than in general play.

Tampines had Khairul Amri on in place of Vitor Ladeiras in the second half, but he spurned a couple of good chances, with attacking partner Jamil Ali doing likewise.

Veteran Aleksandar Duric had to play a deeper role to see enough of the ball and even he managed only one weak shot all match.

In contrast, Balestier was missing regular goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam, centreback Gabriel Obadin and fellow defender Yusiskandar Yusop, along with Vitor Borges, Ruhaizad Ismail and Patrick Paran.

In addition, Hamqaamal Shah, who was in doubt before the game, was forced off with an injury and replaced by a half-fit Zulkiffli Hassim at the hour mark.

Martins was busy as early as the sixth minute, being called upon to bat away a header from Ridwan Jamil off a Qiu Li corner.

Amri went closest for Tampines in the 59th minute, his good work on the left and subsequent cutting inside resulting in a fine shot that clipped the top of the right-hand upright and the bar as it went just over.

At the other end, Martins produced a huge save in the 86th minute after Balestier captain Paul Cunningham stepped up to take a free-kick from 40 yards out on the right.

After seeing earlier long-range efforts from Qiu Li and Tengku Mushadad fail to trouble the goalkeeper, Cunningham made his late effort count.

Martins had to dive full length to his left to make a brilliant save as the shot was well on its way into the top-right corner of the net, before the agile custodian just about got to the ball.

Park Kang Jin had also been denied by Martins minutes earlier, as Balestier sensed that they might be able to push on to victory.

In the end they had to settle for a point, but it was a thoroughly deserved one in the circumstances.