Tampines take title battle to the final day
Tampines' title fight with DPMM will go down to the last day of the season
ALBIREX NIIGATA 0
TAMPINES ROVERS 1
(Rodrigo Tosi 53)
Jurong East Stadium is a place that V Sundramoorthy holds dearly to his heart.
It was where the former Singapore international ended his playing career and took his first steps in management, as player-coach of the now-defunct Jurong FC.
While the 50-year-old has no shortage of memorable times at the stadium, he can add another one to the collection after last night's thrilling 1-0 win over Albirex Niigata.
Even getting sent off did not dampen his mood as Tampines closed to within two points of leaders Brunei DPMM.
This means that the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League is set for a grandstand finish next weekend with the Stags' final match against Harimau Muda pushed back from Friday to Saturday.
It will kick off at 8.15pm - the same time as DPMM's home game against Balestier Khalsa.
Having had to endure his share of criticism throughout the season for Tampines' inconsistent displays, Sundram was just pleased that his side remain in the running to deliver on their promise.
"We've fumbled along the way but, when it matters most, the boys stepped up," he told The New Paper last night.
"Credit to them for the mental strength they have shown in bouncing back after each setback.
"Now, it is most important that they keep their feet on the ground, focus on getting the job done in the last game and hope Balestier do us a favour."
With Tampines boasting a star-studded squad littered with internationals, critics have questioned why their title challenge was so meek.
There was, however, no lack of desire last night as they looked the more threatening of the two sides right from the start.
HIT THE BAR
Rodrigo Tosi had a powerful header kept out by the bar after nine minutes, while Firdaus Idros had an effort cleared off the line shortly after the half-hour mark.
The breakthrough arrived in the 53rd minute when Tosi, having flicked Ismadi Mukhtar's searching pass on to Mateo Roskam, proceeded to race into the box and meet his strike partner's return delivery with a header past Albirex goalkeeper Yosuke Nozawa.
The match then took on a controversial twist when Sundram was banished to the stands with 10 minutes remaining, after reacting to a confrontation between his player Aqhari Abdullah and Albirex playmaker Fumiya Kogure.
The White Swans had a couple of opportunities to equalise right at the death, but the visitors held on for the win that kept them in the title race.
Tosi might have emerged as the match-winner, but there were heroes aplenty for the Stags.
Ismail Yunos and Jufri Taha were defiant in defence, while Ismadi, Firdaus Idros and Roskam - playing much deeper than usual - ran themselves to the ground.
Then, there was also Isa Halim, who was an immovable shield in front of his defence, snapping at any opponent coming his way.
Having only joined Tampines from LionsXII midway through the campaign, the defensive midfielder is hoping to end his year on a high.
He said: "Looking at the table at the halfway stage, no one gave us a chance, but we've been consistent and here we are now still challenging in the final game.
"We knew we had shot ourselves in the foot on a number of occasions when we missed the chance to go top, but we showed how determined we are to ensure the S.League trophy stays in Singapore.
"The football we play may be ugly at times, but the results are all that matter.
"Now, we still need a favour from Balestier but I'm very proud of how we've fought back."
Albirex coach Tatsuyuki Okuyama struggled to hide his disappointment as his side failed in their bid for a top-two finish.
"We desperately wanted to win to finish second," said the Japanese. "I'm very disappointed with the result, considering we conceded from the one real chance they created."
- ALBIREX NIIGATA: Yosuke Nozawa, Mikiya Yamada, Takahiro Saito, Kento Fujihara, Itsuki Yamada, Hikaru Mizuno, Kento Nagasaki (YusukeMukai 83), Shun Inaba, Fumiya Kogure, Atsushi Kawata, Rion Taki.
- TAMPINES ROVERS: Rodrigo Pacheco, Ismail Yunos, Predrag Pocuca, Jufri Taha (Aqhari Abdullah 67), Shaiful Esah, Ismadi Mukhtar, Isa Halim, Naeem Rahimi, Firdaus Idros, Mateo Roskam, Rodrigo Tosi.
- TNP MAN OF THE MATCH: Isa Halim (Tampines Rovers)
Stags can win title if...
For the third time in four years, the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League title race will go down to the wire.
Tampines Rovers' victory over Albirex Niigata last night has kept alive the two-horse race between them and Brunei DPMM till the final day next Saturday.
DPMM, still leading by two points and with a better goal difference by one, will entertain Balestier Khalsa in Bandar Seri Begawan, while the Stags take on Harimau Muda at Jurong West Stadium.
The Bruneian outfit will be crowned champions if they beat the Tigers, while Tampines must win to have any chance.
However, in the event of a Stags victory and a draw at the Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium, both teams would then be level on 50 points and it would go down to goal difference.
S.League CEO Lim Chin believes the final-day drama is testament to how exciting the competition has once again been this season.
"It has been most exciting in these last few matches as the clubs battle for the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League title," he told The New Paper.
"Similar to the 2012 and 2014 seasons, the race has gone down to the wire.
"Once again, we have the conundrum of where to locate the trophy on the final day, but I definitely think it is a happy problem for us."
- GABRIEL TAN