Tampines Rovers qualify for group stage of AFC Champions League
But Albirex regain top spot and will win SPL title by beating Hougang on Saturday
Looking at the crestfallen faces of the Tampines Rovers players at the final whistle of their match against Lion City Sailors yesterday, one would not have been able to tell they had just confirmed a historic qualification to the group stage of next season's AFC Champions League.
The Stags played out a 1-1 draw against the Sailors at Bishan Stadium to maintain their four-point lead over the hosts with just one game left in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) season.
While they will finish as the best local side and earn a spot at the premier AFC tournament, the achievement was overshadowed by the result. The draw meant Tampines relinquished their position at the top of the table, after Albirex Niigata beat bottom side Tanjong Pagar United 3-0 at Jurong East Stadium to move one point clear ahead of Saturday's final round of fixtures.
With a one-point advantage, Albirex will seal their fourth title in five seasons if they defeat Hougang United, or match Tampines' result against Geylang International at Our Tampines Hub.
The Stags, on the other hand, have to win to stand a better chance of clinching their first league title since 2013, and hope the White Swans drop points. There is also the possibility of Tampines winning the league on goal difference should they get a point against Geylang and Albirex lose by two goals to Hougang.
Sailors coach Aurelio Vidmar likened the match to a chess game, with his side taking the initiative early on and scoring via former national skipper Shahril Ishak, who squeezed in the ball from a tight angle on his second attempt in the 45th minute.
But the momentum then swung the visitors' way after Jordan Webb was brought on in the second half. The Canadian forward chested Yasir Hanapi's cross on to Zehrudin Mehmedovic to finish past Hassan Sunny in the 63rd minute.
The Stags just could not muster a third comeback win in five games, with Tampines goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari coming up with a big save to deny Hafiz Nor and consign Vidmar's men to third spot and a place in the AFC Cup.
Tampines coach Gavin Lee hailed the efforts of his team.
He said: "Our boys have made club history and we should feel proud of that. We could have put ourselves in a better position as far as the title race is concerned, but we have put in one year of top work and we will try to finish as strong as we can."
Elsewhere, the race for the second AFC Cup spot will also go to the final day after Balestier Khalsa and Geylang International produced matching 2-1 away wins at Hougang United and Young Lions respectively to be deadlocked at 19 points, with the Tigers ahead on goal difference.
Balestier, who play the Sailors on Saturday, will qualify for the AFC Cup as long as they match Geylang's result and maintain their superior goal difference.