SINGAPORE – A magnificent second-half turnaround – which included three goals in 14 minutes – helped Tampines Rovers beat Albirex Niigata 4-1 on Sunday night (Nov 29) and usurp the Japanese side’s place at the top of the Singapore Premier League (SPL).
With just two games left this season, the title race now looks likely to go down to the wire next Saturday. Tampines are on 27 points, with Albirex a point behind. Third-placed Lion City Sailors, who beat the Young Lions 4-0 on Sunday, are four points behind Tampines.
Albirex took the lead in the 37th minute when Tomoyuki Doi punished Baihakki Khaizan’s weak header meant for his own goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari, and dinked the ball over the Stags’ custodian.
Tampines came close to equalising moments before the break, when their midfielder Kyoga Nakamura’s powerful shot from the edge of the box crashed off the bar, after he had balletically turned his marker.
Stags coach Gavin Lee then threw on Madhu Mohana and Irwan Shah on for the start of the second half, and the move paid instant dividends.
Just three minutes after the restart, Yasir Hanapi found Madhu free at the back post, and the full-back headed the ball back into the danger area for Boris Kopitovic to equalise from close range.
Eight minutes later, Amirul Adli put Tampines in front when poor defending by Albirex at a corner saw the ball break to him at the far post.
The Stags then extended their lead in the 62nd minute when Madhu seized on a slip by Hiroyoshi Kamata and played Kopitovic in again, with the Montenegrin striker finishing with aplomb on his second try.
Tampines substitute Taufik Suparno then added gloss to the scoreline in the 88th minute, latching onto a stray pass by Yasuhiro Hanada and firing home the fourth.
The win helped Tampines pull off a double over Albirex, after a 2-0 win last month, and is a result they hope will help them to their sixth league title and first since 2013.
Tampines aced arguably their toughest test as the season draws to a close, but still have two more tricky fixtures to negotiate.
They play third-placed Lion City on Wednesday, with the Sailors a significantly improved side since the Stags’ 4-0 win in the reverse fixture in March, before the season was suspended because of Covid-19.
They then end the season against Geylang International on Saturday in an Eastern Derby – they pair drew 1-1 on Nov 7.
Lion City also have an outside chance of winning the title but need to win both their remaining games and hope both Tampines and Albirex drop points in theirs.
Albirex fans watching the match at the Jurong East Stadium. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Albirex, in comparison, have the easier run-in on paper.
On Wednesday, they entertain bottom side Tanjong Pagar United – still looking for their first win – before wrapping up their season on Saturday by visiting a Hougang United side who have decided to play the remainder of their season with an all-local line-up after letting their imports go at the end of their contracts.
Fixtures aside, the permutation is simple – win their next two games, and Tampines are champions. And if Stags coach Gavin Lee can gee his players up to perform like they did in the second half against Albirex, then there is a good chance they could finally end their seven-year wait for the league title.