Tampines takes first leg, 2-0, from Loyola
by rick olivares pic by brosi gonzales
Clementi Stadium, Singapore
Whoever said that height isn’t might in football should watch this game between Singaporean side Tampines Rovers and Philippine club Loyola Meralco Sparks.
In a clinical display of the use of the long ball, the Stags, as the Tampines Rovers are known by, launched one long bomb after another with GPS precision from their backline and midfield towards targets Aleksandar Duric and Sead Hadzibulic that had the Philippine defense backpedalling for much of the game. Duric is 6’4” while Hadzibulic stands 6’3” and that helped them win the battle for air superiority.
“If we took the game to the ground, we would have had difficulty against Loyola,” said Tampines head coach Tay Peng Kee. “We were on target tonight. Latiff was brilliant.”
Loyola had prepared for Hadzibulic’s feeding Grigor Gligorov and Duric with his accurate passing but Kee masterfully mixed up their patented 3-4-3 formation with Gligorov playing the central midfield and Latiff playing the right forward position raining the long balls to their much taller teammates.
The Sparks were ready for the tall players as they had Chad Gould and Kim Woo Chul, both standing taller than six-foot-one matching up against the Stags frontline. But the Singaporeans’ speed up front pressured the Sparks no end.
Latiff found Duric in the 13th minute with space and a moment to load up for a big time volley but the longtime Singaporean national striker’s shot lacked power as Loyola keeper Ref Cuaresma easily corralled the ball that went straight to him. But it served notice that their early success with the long ball was opening up large tracts of space for the Stags midfielders to run up and down the field. With the defense staying put because of concerns with Duric, there was not hardly any support link in the Sparks' attack.
The accuracy of the long ball immediately tore to shreds the 1-4-1-4 formation of Loyola. Equally dooming Loyola was – in hindsight of course – the decision to keep midfielders James Younghusband and Mark Hartmann on the bench. Younghusband had been unable to practice because of the flu and the coaching staff didn’t want to waste a substitution in case the club captain wasn’t up to the task.
Hartmann not starting denied Loyola the presence of perhaps the best free kick specialist in the Philippines. He could have found Phil Younghusband up front with his passes while providing a scoring threat from the secondary.
Loyola’s K-Pop contingent of Park Minho, Jang Jowon, and Byeong Yeong Jeol had performed well in the their earlier series against Geylang United and Kanbawza but against Tampines, they were mostly ineffective as their passes were mostly short and incomplete. Their inability to link up the middle and attacking third gave Tampines mastery of the midfield. Latiff ran the pitch with impunity.
Duric, who is as religious as Loyola midfielder in his dieting regimen, told me in a long pre-game chat at the parking lot of Clementi Stadium that his eating right habits have kept him in marvelous shape. “I play a lot of football for an old man,” he said. “I don’t run up and down the pitch like I used to but I can still explode for the ball when I need to.”
Cuaresma glowed about Duric’s pace, skill, and power after the match. “He’s what – fortysomething? But he is very fast and very skilled. He was even outracing our defenders.”
In the 28th minute, Gligorov found Duric with a longball on a quick counter. Duric had only Gould to beat down the left just outside the penalty area but the latter closed him down. Cuaresma rushed off his line and Duric deft chip off his left boot sailed over the Loyola goalkeeper and just into the far post for the Stags’ first goal of the night.
Tampines’ supporters who numbered about a hundred erupted in joy even popping confetti in celebration. They even exhorted their home side to score in Filipino. “Isa pa!” urged the Stags supporters. “Isa pa para panalo.”
The Filipino supporters who numbered about 400 countered by using the drumbeats of the Singaporean supporters to whip up chants of “Go! Go, Sparks!”
At the reset, Loyola adopted a more conventional 4-4-2 to close out the wings where Latiff ran unchecked earlier. Tampines showed their ability to adjust on the fly when they went to a ground game. Midfielder Imran Sahib found Latiff lurking just outside the penalty area with a square pass and the latter fired on a quick turn. Cuaresma had no chance. Two-nil Tampines.
In the 57th minute, the Sparks appeared to pull back one when Chad Gould headed in a well-placed free kick by Kim Woo Chul from some 40 yards out from the right side. But referee Sukhbir Singh disallowed the goal because he had not blown his whistle to signify for the play to begin.
Incredibly, Kim took his time before sending the ball into the box and every Sparks and Stags player was just waiting for the ball to be launched. Singh blew his whistle only after Gould had scored. An irate Loyola assistant coach Vince Santos said that afterwards that if there was a violation, Singh should have blown his whistle before the shot was taken and not after. Furthermore, Kim took his time before firing away.
Singh booked Kim for a second yellow (he had one earlier in the match) and that sent off the tall Korean to the showers. “That was a crucial call,” said a displeased Santos. “That leaves us a tall centerback short. The referee was too hasty in his decision.”
That wasn’t the only decision that spelled problems for Loyola. Head coach Kim Chul So’s decision not to make early substitutions proved disastrous. He pulled out Simon Greatwich too early when it should have been either Minho or Byeong who should have been replaced. He brought in James Younghusband late in the first half and both Mark Hartmann and Jake Morallo really late into the game. Hartmann, who has scored two massive goals in this competition made an immediate impact while Morallo gave Loyola speed in the wings.
Incredibly, Loyola played better with 10 men as Tampines began to tire. Hartmann’s volleys and Morallo’s speed helped but Loyola could not find proper shots. James Younghusband had a pair of scoring chances in the 55th and 76th minute but both shots went wide right.
A late Cuaresma save off a header by Hadzibulic proved to be a huge one as a third goal would have pretty much put this series out of reach.
Matters evened out manpower-wise as Stags defender Ben Croissant was sent off on account of two yellows. That means both Kim and Croissant will miss the second leg that will be played on Sunday at Jalan Besar Stadium.
“We aren’t out of it yet,” said Phil Younghusand who remained optimistic of Loyola’s chances. “We have to stop their long balls and their tall forwards but that is saying a lot. It will be difficult. And we have to score early so we’re back in the fight.”
Anaz Hadee Ben Croissant Mustafic Fahrudin
Imran Sahib Gligor Gligorov Ismadi Mukhtar Jufri Taha
Ahmad Latiff Aleksandar Duric Sead Hadzibulic
Byeong Yeong Jeol Park Minho Jang Jowon Simon Greatwich
Roxy Dorlas Kim Woo Chul Chad Gould Alex Elnar
Referee: Sukhbir Singh
First Assistant: Lim Kok Heng
Second Assistant: Er Swee Ann
Fourth Official: W. Ravisanthiran
Match Commissioner: K Kandasamy
Loyola players confront the referee over the disallowed goal. There was a near fight after this as Byeong booted the ball to the opposite side in disgust prompting the Tampines players to confront Loyola.