When Tampines Rovers take on Asian titans Gamba Osaka on Friday, it will be a real David versus Goliath encounter. On one hand, you have the runners-up to the Singapore Premier League who will feature in Asia’s premier continental competition for the first time. Regarded as minnows by the wider Asian football fraternity, you might not have ever heard of the Stags before this year if you did not know about football in Singapore. On the other hand, you have AFC Champions League veterans Gamba Osaka who won the competition back in 2008. The Japanese outfit has been abysmal in the league, and even though they have two to three games in hand compared to the rest of the pack, they have been flirting with relegation all season. Gamba should never be taken lightly, though, and the Stags would never want to underestimate their opponents.
Things do not get easy for Tampines following their first fixture against Gamba. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are arguably the best club in Korea, and fellow Southeast Asian side Chiangrai United (who replace Sydney FC) are no pushovers. In fact, Chiangrai beat FC Seoul 2-0 and drew against Melbourne Victory and Beijing Guoan in last year’s competition.
The odds seemed stacked against Tampines Rovers, but such was the situation more than a decade ago when another Singapore side played in the AFC Champions League group stages.
A Brief Glimpse Of The Past
Unlike the bulk of Champions League teams, Gamba Osaka has actually played against Singaporean opposition in the past. Back in 2010, Gamba was grouped together with Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Henan Jianye [now Henan Songshan Longmen F.C] and of course, S.League champions Singapore Armed Forces FC (SAFFC) [now Warriors FC]. While it marked the last time a Singaporean team would feature in the AFC Champions League for over a decade, it was also the best showing by a Singapore side in the Champions League to date.
Yes, granted, SAFFC had only featured in the 2009 edition of the Champions League group stage the previous year, securing 4 points in their 2010 crusade marked significant progress. They had, after all, only secured a single point in their 2009 venture – a 1-1 draw against Shanghai Shenhua.
The Warriors started their 2010 campaign off strongly with a 0-0 draw against Henan Jian Ye. They would go on to lose their next three fixtures.
Against then-reigning Korean FA Cup winners Suwon Samsung Bluewings, SAFFC would lose 2-0, a respectable result given the gulf between opponents. A six-goal thriller would ensure between SAFFC and Gamba Osaka. The Japanese titans may have slotted past 4 goals at Jalan Besar, with Shoki Hirai netting a hattrick, but the Warriors pulled two back. Erwan Gunawan and former Swedish international Niklas Sandberg were on the scoresheet that night. A valiant defeat for the Warriors.
A 3-0 away defeat to Gamba ensued before SAFFC faced Henan Jianye again at home. After earning a point against the Chinese side in the first round of fixtures, Richard Bok would have surely instructed his boys to go for the win. Adopting a 5-3-2 formation with Ahmad Latiff and Indra Shahdan leading the attack, SAF FC managed to keep things level in the first half.
After a scramble for the ball from an Ahmad Latiff corner kick, Daniel Bennet would open the scoring in the 65th minute with a thunderous volley. Remarkably, Daniel Bennett would once again represent Singapore in the AFC Champions League after doing so more than a decade ago. Henan would equalize after some careless defending allowed Yu Le to poke the ball past Sharil Jantan. It seemed as if the Warriors were destined for a draw, but Erwan Gunawan had other ideas. The forward had come in for Singapore sensation Indra Shahdan in the 46th minute and was looking to add another goal after netting against Gamba on Matchday 2. By heading home the winning goal in the 77th minute from yet another Ahmad Latiff corner kick, he helped Warriors etch their names in the history books by becoming the first Singapore side to win an AFC Champions League group stage fixture. Also in that SAFFC team was Rhysh Roshan Rai, who now commentates alongside Patrick Kinghorn for SPL fixtures.
SAF FC would lose their final game of the AFC Champions League fixture, a crushing defeat away to Suwon Samsung Blue Wings. The Koreans would slot six past the Warriors’ defence, but Uruguyan forward Frederico Martinez and Croatian centre-back Ivan Lovrić would pull two back for the Warriors.
Besides also facing Gamba Osaka and having Daniel Bennet on their roster, Tampines share one other similarity with the SAF FC side – having phenomenal head coaches. In Gavin, we have Singapore’s brightest coaching prospect, who has accomplished a lot despite his relatively young age. Richard may have been 41 when he coached SAF FC in 2010, but he took the team’s reigns in 2006 when he was 35 years old and is still the manager with the most S.League titles . Gavin would surely have put in a lot of thought behind his team selections, and the man always has a plan. It would be interesting to see how he sets up against Gamba in a few days.
Did the Warriors have any hope of qualifying? Probably next to none. Yet, Richard Bok and co. definitely put on a reputable display against Asia’s best. That’s exactly what we hope to see with the Stags – a fighting spirit till the very end.
Another week, another podcast episode. This time, we look at the first round of the euro matches (and a few second-round fixtures), transfer moves and Tampines Rovers’ upcoming AFC Champions League expedition. In the second part, we look at various transfer moves and discuss the Stags’ inaugural AFC Champions League journey!
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