The Singapore Premier League is Back: Hougang Stun Tampines and Tanjong Pagar Made to Rue Missed Chances

After 211 days of local professional football being absent from our TV screens, the Singapore Premier League has finally resumed. However, there were certain changes made by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). Instead of a three-round league, only 2 rounds would be played, with cup competitions cancelled. Moreover, just like many of the European leagues, 5 substitutions are allowed as opposed to 3. More importantly, there is a lot at stake for clubs this season, given how the top 3 teams will be eligible for continental competition next season onwards. The revisions to the AFC Champions League means that the top-placed Singaporean club would have an automatic berth in the group stages, and for the first time in a decade, we will definitely have a Singaporean representative in Asia’s premier continental competition. The second and third placed Singaporean sides would have an automatic place in the AFC Cup group stages.

Kicking the restart of the league off were Tanjong Pagar United, who played against Balestier Khalsa, and Tampines Rovers, who were up against Hougang United. I really wanted to catch both games of the day, even though they occurred simultaneously at 5:30pm. I circumvented this issue by streaming the Tanjong Pagar United vs Balestier game on my phone while I caught the Tampines vs Hougang tie on my computer.

It was intriguing to see a number of players I interviewed the past few months return to action. Syazwan Buhari, Anders Aplin, and Ignatius Ang featured for Tampines Rovers, Hougang United, and Tanjong Pagar United, respectively. It was also good to see Gavin Lee. Delwinder Singh unfortunately was serving a two-game suspension after getting sent off against Albirex Nigata in the Jaguar’s last match before the suspension of the league.

The Tampines and Hougang fixture was an interesting one because both clubs were playing in the AFC Cup prior to the suspension of the competition. The AFC Cup was slated to resume in October, but the competition unfortunately got cancelled, and we would have to wait till next year’s edition. Meanwhile, I was curious to see how Tanjong Pagar would fare. The club rejoined the 2020 edition of the SPL after sitting out of the league for the past 5 years. Many have written them off as whipping boys, but in their first two matches they showed real gusto in their performances. I wanted to see their development as a team.

Tampines Rovers vs Hougang United

Ready with my streaming “set up”, I waited patiently once both matches kicked off for the first goal of the evening. Unfortunately for Tampines, it was Sahil Suhaimi who clinched the first goal in the SPL after 211 days. The former Warriors right winger executed a thunderbolt of a free kick from a really tight angle. 3 minutes later, rising star Farhan Zulkifli tapped in a goal as the Hougang frontline managed to capitalize on the leaky Tampines defence. The Stags were definitely riled up after going down 2-0. Emotions ran high after a scrappy tussle between M Anumanthan and Daniel Bennett, with players from both sides exchanging harsh words with each other. That set the tone of the fixture, and the match was riddled with heavy challenges from both sides after that.

Tampines began the second half much better, and Gavin appeared to calm the players down during his half-time team talk. Both teams made changes for the second half with the Stags bringing in Taufiq Suparno. Taufiq made an immediate impact after the break and the Tampines attack looked menacing, winning a free kick in the 47th minute of the match.

Farhan Zulkifli had the opportunity to finish off Tampines, but he squandered his shot before colliding with Syazwan Buhari. He would rue that chance, because a minute later Nakamura lobbed the ball into the Hougang penalty box and Irwan Shah managed to convert his header. The comeback was on. Tampines played with renewed confidence and continued to try their long ball approach to find an opening. Once again, Nakamura supplied another lobbed pass to the box, with Madhu Mohana the inteded recepient this time round. The Tampines left back managed to recover the ball after an awful first touch and crossed it over to Irwan Shah, who converted the chance, only for it to be ruled offside. Unfortunately, the SPL does not have VAR like the European leagues and thus, the goal could not be reviewed. It was interesting how in that moment, I was reminded of a time when matches were played without VAR. Hougang similarly had a goal ruled offside in the 86th minute of the match. Nakamura’s long range effort came off the post, but Suparno who had a clear view on goal stood rooted to the spot, unable to convert the rebound properly. Taufiq probably thought he was offside, but the flag stayed down.

Tanjong Pagar United vs Balestier Khalsa

In the other match, play was more scrappy. The Jaguars dominated possession and looked more threatening than Balestier but nether team could break the deadlock in the first 45 minutes. Shuhei “Jumbo” Hoshino came close to scoring for the Tigers just before the break, with his shot inches away from the frame of the post just before the end of the half. Ignatius Ang was brilliant for the Jaguars in the first half, frustrating the Balestier backline, and his runs forced the Tigers to concede multiple free kicks at the edge of the penalty box. Yann Motta however, was unable to make the best of the free kicks.

Poor defending from Tanjong Pagar allowed Ensar “Bruno” Brunčević to head in a simple goal from a Balestier corner and giving the Tigers a lead in the process. The massive Serbian was left unchecked and headed in with ease. After the goal, Tanjong Pagar sprang back to life. Ignatius Ang came close to equalizing in the 56th minute, but headed wide from a delicious cross by Takahiro Tanaka. Only registering a single shot on target in the first half, they tested Zaiful Nizam a number of times, but the Balestier custodian managed to keep the Jaguars out with a series of spectacular saves. Balestier came close to doubling their lead but Takahiro Tanaka managed to cut off Haswan Halim’s cross in the 71th minute. The Tanjong Pagar onslaught continued but nothing materialized. Ignatius Ang’s free kick in the 80th minute reached Suria Prakash, who was unmarked in the 6 yard box. However, Yan Motta was similarly unmarked during a corner but his header was off target. Balestier were vulnerable in the back and were hanging onto a thread. They were desperate for to cling onto their meagre 1-0 win and tried everything in their means to keep things that way. Zaiful Nizam was booked for time wasting as he delayed his goal kick.

Tanjong Pagar coach Hasrin Jailani was hilarious when he was unhappy with Faritz Hameed being shown a yellow card. He was speaking with the 4th official and questioned the validity of the booking, arguing that since advantage was given, the yellow should not stand. I chuckled when the cameras managed to capture his response when he regrettably conceded defeat to the 4th official and exclaimed “I’m a PSLE student.”

So what did I learn? Well, a ton.

Learning Points

Match sharpness will be an issue for the first few fixtures. After such a lengthy lay off from competitive professional football, players were naturally rusty. We saw this happen after other leagues restarted during the summer and it will be a while before players get used to the intensity they were used to prior to the suspension of the league.

The match also marked the return of Baihakki Khaizan to Singapore Football, who was substituted in the second half. The veteran defender had spent the last 2 and a half years in Thailand. Bai played a decent game and I think the league seriously needs to rethink the cap it has set for over-aged players. Currently, there is a restriction imposed on each club where only 6 players over the age of 30 can be registered. Granted, I know the move was put in place to increase playing time for younger footballers, I think the rule needs to be evaluated again.

It was good to see the return of Luiz Júnior as well. The Brazilian forward, who featured in same Brazil U-17 team alongside the likes of Oscar in 2007, was injured earlier in the season, and he is one of the few players who was happy with the lengthy suspension of the league as it allowed him to recuperate without additional pressure. While he did not score in this fixture, I think it’s only a matter of time before we see him banging in the goals.

I was also impressed with how effective the Hougang defensive partnership was. Anders Aplin and Zac Anderson played well alongside each other and were effective in silencing Tampines forward Boris Kopitović.

The Jaguars could have easily won the game but their players squandered golden opportunities handed to them. Suria Prakash repeatedly missed chances and an unmarked Faritz Hameed squandered a final effort as well. Also, it was rather weird that the referee ended the Tanjong Pagar game 20 seconds earlier than expected. 15 to 20 seconds could have made a difference, so I’m kind of bewildered by that decision. That being said, Tanjong Pagar need to learn from this game and really take their chances when given to them.

Balestier now find themselves in 2nd place after the win against Tanjong Pagar, who now sit in 7th. Tampines are still at the top of the table with 9 points despite the loss, but Hougang have a game in hand at 3rd place with 7 points. It will be interesting to see tomorrow’s matches as well: Lion City Sailors take on Geylang International while Young Lions face Albirex Nigata. You can be sure that I will once again catch both matches simultaneously.

I’m just really excited for local football to be back.

Featured Image: Singapore Premier League

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