Tampines Rovers fell to their first AFC Cup defeat of the campaign after losing 2-1 to Ceres La Salle in Philippines on Tuesday evening.
Bienvenido Maranon and Adrian Gallardo both scored from the spot as Ceres took a 2-0 lead into the break before Billy Mehmet pulled one back midway in the second half.
Tampines lined up with a weaken side, with the trio of Mehmet, Jermaine Pennant and Jordan Webb all left on the bench, perhaps with coach V. Sundramoorthy keeping an eye on Saturday’s league match against Albirex Niigata (S).
It was a move that backfired badly, as Ceres dominated from the start, which was delayed for 30 minutes due to inclement weather.
The Philippines side were gifted a penalty when Kwon Jun handled the ball inside the area in the 20th minute and Maranon drilled the penalty coolly down the middle for the opening goal.
Tampines tried to force a reply six minutes later through Fazrul Nawaz’s header, only for Ceres goalkeeper Louie Casas to respond with a fine save.
Adrian Gallardo fired wide just seconds later after Patrick Reichelt created an opening for him following a quick attack, before Fazrul saw an effort ruled out for offside.
Ceres were awarded another penalty in the 36th minute after Gallardo was fouled inside the box, this time while trying to get onto the end of a free-kick. The Spaniard picked himself up to convert the penalty.
It could have been game over three minutes before half-time after Reichelt headed Manuel Ott’s lovely ball into Gallardo’s path, but the striker failed to put away the chance.
Tampines responded by throwing on Billy Mehmet for Christopher Van Huizen at the break and he almost made instant impact two minutes in, when his glancing header forced Casas into a save.
The goalkeeper then fumbled a cross towards Hafiz Sujad in the 56th minute, but Kim Sang-min produced an important block.
Both Jermaine Pennant and Jordan Webb were subsequently introduced into the game as Sundram tried to salvage at least a point for his side.
The pressure finally paid off in the 64th minute, after Mehmet’s shot took a heavy deflection and looped over a stranded Casa into goal to reduce the deficit.
Three minutes later, Webb fired an effort just wide after cutting in, before Kwon missed the target completely with a header off Pennant’s cross.
A rare attack from Ceres in the second period saw Ott setting up Maranon, but the goalscorer scuffed his shot at Sim instead.
Webb missed a decent chance in the 78th minute, while Fahrudin Mustafic nodded over Pennant’s corner even though he had time and space in the dying minutes, allowing the hosts to hold on for a vital victory and move to the top of Group E.