Having played the majority of the game with 10 men, it was heartbreak for S.League champions Tampines Rovers when they eventually fell in extra time to lose 2-1 to Hong Kong side South China AA in the first round of the AFC Champions League play-offs on Sunday evening.
The Hong Kong first division champions wasted a host of opportunities to put the result to bed at Jalan Besar Stadium, while new Tampines Rovers custodian Hyrulnizam Juma’at kept the visitors at bay with a string of impressive saves.
However, despite Miljan Mrdakovic's equaliser midway through the second half, Andrew Barisic's second of the night in the first half of extra time sealed progress for the visitors.
Still, Stags coach Salim Moin was pleased with his team's "good fight", especially as they are still in pre-season while their opponents are midway through their First Division league campaign.
“I’m very proud of my team despite the two red cards, they showed great fighting spirit and that’s one thing I am proud about the players," Salim said during the post match press conference.
“You can see in the first half we created more chances than South China. A few goals were saved on the line.
“In the game, sometimes it [the two red cards] happens in the spur of the moment. Sometimes players get overzealous. But in the end they know how to perform during the game.”
Match-winner Barisic was a relieved man after his team managed to find the winner in extra time following a host of missed chances, and paid tribute to the Stags for pushing them all the way.
“I think we put ourselves under pressure by relaxing a little bit too early, and we let them come back with a goal,” the two-goal hero said.
“They obviously did well with 10 men. They’re still in pre-season and they put us under immense pressure. [But] all credit to us and the team and the courage. We kept in there, we kept going and we didn’t give up.
“I think we dominated. We had a lot of chances and position but obviously we should have put a lot of the chances away earlier. Thank god it worked [out] in the end."
Hyrulnizam (right), on the other hand, felt that his team deserved to go through after coming back from a goal down. The team had prepared for two months for the game and the goalkeeper felt they merited a better outcome for their performance.
“We fought very hard as a unit,” he said.
“We deserve to go to the next round because this is our home ground. We’ve been together for two months training hard for this game, and I think it showed on the pitch the effort that we put in for the past two months and the performance we did tonight.
“I hope that we continue working hard for the next game.”
Likewise, Salim is now looking forward to shift their focus back to the league, where they have the issue of defending their title.
“We’re still training very hard,” Salim said.
“They believe in hard work to get the reward. So this two weeks we’ll try to do some corrections and improve certain things so that when it comes to the charity game, you can see a different kind of attacking play from my team.”
With victory, South China progress to the second round of the play-offs to face Chonburi away on February 9. Tampines will take on Home United in the Charity Shield season opener for the S.League on February 21.