SINGAPORE – Pouncing onto a loose ball, Tampines Rovers striker Boris Kopitovic nimbly adjusted his body shape to give his side the lead against Tanjong Pagar United with a deft finish.
The 24th-minute strike, which gave the Montenegrin his eighth Singapore Premier League (SPL) goal this season, set the Stags on their way to a routine 3-0 win at Our Tampines Hub on Sunday.
It was the kind of clinical finishing that Tanjong Pagar were sorely lacking, admitted their coach Hasrin Jailani, as the Stags moved just one point behind league leaders Albirex Niigata, who have a game in hand. The Jaguars remain seventh.
“If they took their chances like Syukri’s chance in the opening minutes, I think it would change the complex of the game,” said Hasrin, referring to his forward Syukri Bashir’s early attempt.
“We’ve been working on our finishing in training. Maybe we needed a striker to get us a goal in a game like this but ultimately it is a team game.”
Tanjong Pagar’s starting forwards Syukri (one) and Marin Mudrazija (two) have combined for a paltry three goals. Their leading scorer with three goals is captain Shakir Hamzah, who is a defender.
Syukri had the opportunity to double his season’s tally in the sixth minute when Tampines goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari rushed off his line to stop a counter-attack. But even with the goal gaping, the 25-year-old failed to find the net with his chipped attempt.
The miss proved costly as Tampines’ dominance paid off in the 24th minute, with Kopitovic tucking home a loose ball after teammate Yasir Hanapi’s initial shot was blocked.
The home side should have extended their lead in the 38th minute when Joel Chew struck the crossbar before Faris Ramli missed a tap-in from inside the six-yard box.
The away side’s misery in front of goal continued three minutes after the interval, when winger Zulfadhmi Suzliman, making his first league start this season, rounded Syazwan but fired wide.
The game’s tempo waned midway in the second half, but was brought back to life when Tampines substitute Saifullah Akbar struck the crossbar in the 79th minute.
Moments later, midfielder Kyoga Nakamura latched onto a botched clearance from Jaguars goalkeeper Kenji Rusydi, sidestepped the solitary defender in his way and fired Tampines into a two-goal lead.
Tanjong Pagar threw on veteran striker Khairul Amri next, but the former Lion’s close-range effort in the 85th minute was parried by Syazwan.
Two minutes before stoppage time, any hopes of a late Jaguars comeback were extinguished when Shakir was sent off for a late tackle.
With the last kick of the game, debutant Kegan Phang put the icing on the cake for Tampines by making a well-timed run into the box to fire home.
Stags coach Gavin Lee was full of praise for the 17-year-old defender, saying: “I’m happy for the boy. I think you could see the reaction of the squad... that’s the recognition he deserves because he’s a really good team member. Fair play to him for taking the opportunity today because nobody expected that.”
Unlike their previous meeting in March, when they lost 2-0 to Tampines, Tanjong Pagar attempted to play on the front foot by triggering an aggressive press in specific moments. Hasrin set his side up in a fluid 3-5-2 in possession that morphed into a 4-4-2 off the ball.
Though Tampines were far from their best, their players managed the tricky situations presented by Tanjong Pagar’s press. Ultimately, individual quality proved to be the difference between the Stags and a resilient and well-organised Jaguars team.