Tampines Rovers secured three points in a hard-fought victory over Albirex Niigata (S) at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday evening.
Ryota Doi was missing from the regular strike trio of himself, Tetsuya Okayama and Akira Takase, so Ryoichi Kasai was given a chance up front. Khairul Amri was suspended from Tampines, and with several first-team players either injured or unfit, the Stags were forced to include five Prime League players on the bench.
The White Swans were the designated hosts for the game, and started out strongly, amidst a party-clad atmosphere with heavy backing from sponsors Japan Airlines.
Kasai and Takase tested Hassan Sunny in the opening ten minutes, with the Singapore international appearing shaky at the start, but adjusted well soon after.
The Stags’ first real attacking shape appeared after almost twenty minutes had gone on the clock, but Sutee Suksomkit’s pass was intercepted by Ryota Kobayashi before it could reach Qiu Li.
The Thai midfielder made up for the poor pass soon after as he hooked in a cross to Ridhuan Muhammad, but Kobayashi did well again to pressure the latter into a wasteful volley.
The deadlock was broken seven minutes later when Kasai’s errant backpass coupled with a moment of poor judgement from Takatoshi Uchida allowed Aliff Shafaein to pounce on the loose ball. The Stags striker then beat custodian Norio Takahashi to place the ball into an empty net.
Okayama attempted to level things quickly but his header was put out by Hassan for a corner.
The Stags were soon on a break as Sutee’s pass opened a gap for Aliff to run through, but the 26-year-old made the wrong option to pass outwards to Qiu Li instead of Ridhuan, who was open on the right flank, and Qiu Li blew his attempt to cross horribly, the ball landing nicely in the hands of Takahashi.
Tampines poured forward to increase their lead but Imran Sahib allowed selfishness to get in his way when he overlooked a pass to Qiu Li to blast the ball over the bar.
The Chinese-born striker had his chance just before the break when Sutee won the ball on the byline and played it in, but the former’s finishing was poor.
Albirex kicked off the second half with intent to equalise, as the experienced Okayama played a short corner to Takase, who dribbled along the edge of the box and fired away, but Hassan parried the shot well.
However, Tampines were not about to rest on their laurels and brought their fans to their feet when Ridhuan drifted out to the extreme right with the ball. The winger squared the ball in to Aliff, who intended to let the ball run under his feet to substitute Selamat Jalit, but the youngster had moved up too soon and the ball was cleared by the defenders.
A long-range rocket from Yoshitaka Komori and a free kick from Taisuke Akiyoshi forced excellent saves from Hassan, who was on top of his game in the second half, keeping out the Japanese side on several other occasions.
There was a humorous moment in stoppage time when Takase and substitutes Ippei Shimizu and Saito Nomura went 3-on-1 against Hassan, as the referee had given a Tampines free kick near the centre circle but not blown the whistle. Shimizu hit the back of the net and the trio ran away celebrating, but the referee ruled out the goal and continued play from the free kick.
Despite the loss and Albirex’s failure to overtake Woodlands on the standings, coach Hiroaki Hiraoka was pleased with the way his team played.
“It was a good game, even if the result was not in our favour,” said the Japanese coach. “We had good momentum though we could not score, but the most important thing is we did not give up.”
Tampines Rovers have no change in position on the table, but they have narrowed the gap to just seven points behind third-placed Super Reds.
“The effort was there from the team and we are quite pleased with the three points,” said the Stags’ first team manager Syed Faruk.
“Prior to this game we had a lot of injuries and the officiating standard did not help in our cause,” he continued. “Two of our players who were yellow-carded will be suspended for the next game.
“As a result, one or two of our Prime League players might start the next game and we have to trust in their abilities,” said Faruk. “We know what they are capable of and we have to give them the chance to play under pressure.”