Red Giants cut down in AFC Cup heartbreaker

Tampines Rovers held off a late onslaught from Selangor FA to prevail 1-0 at the Singapore National Stadium on Tuesday night to secure a spot in the 2016 AFC Cup knockout stages. 

The Red Giants would have progressed with a win or a draw, but Yasir Hanapi's first-half stunner was enough to separate the two sides in front of 11,875 fans, with Tampines qualifying for the last 16.

Needing all three points to ensure qualification, it was Tampines who started on the front foot and perhaps should have received a penalty after just eight minutes.

Pennant went down inside the box after a push by Selangor left back Raimi Nor, but Bahraini referee Jameel Juma Abdulhusain was not interested in the latter’s appeals.

Billy Mehmet then connected well with Noh Rahman’s lofted cross from the right on 11 minutes, but the English-born forward was just unable to direct his header on target.

Selangor regrouped with Robert Cornthwaite’s header from an R Gopinathan inswinging corner in the 22nd minute well tipped over by Tampines goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud.

Pennant, who had a quiet first 25 minutes, then embarked on an exciting 50-yard run to get the crowd going, but his resulting pass to Mehmet was snuffed out by a Selangor defender. 

The 33-year-old was then floored by a crude elbow by Raimi which deservedly got the latter booked, but the Englishman recovered to play his part in the Stags’ opener just after the half-hour mark.

An inward pass from the former England under-21 winger picked out Mehmet, who in turn released Yasir, who unleashed a superb curler with his weaker left foot from the edge of the box that left Selangor goalie Khairul Azhan Khalid rooted to the spot.

Pennant started and proved a nuisance all game for Tampines until his late substitution

There were further chances for Tampines to extend the lead thereafter, but Khairul Azhan stood strong to repel efforts from Shahdan Sulaiman and Yasir.

Selangor had an excellent chance to level just before the break when they were awarded a free kick on the edge of the box, but Mauro Olivi’s low effort was tipped around the post by the excellent Izwan.

The Red Giants picked up where they left off after the restart, with captain Shahrom Kalam firing straight at Izwan after Andik Vermansyah’s corner was half-cleared into his path.

Zainal Abidin Hassan’s men continued to pile on the pressure with towering forward Patrick “Ronaldinho” Wleh leading the line, but the Liberian failed to find any real headway with Tampines captain Mustafic Fahrudin putting up a colossal performance at the back.

Tampines then went on the break and nearly scored a second goal on 67 minutes, with Hafiz Sujad raking the post with a thunderbolt of a shot after being released by Shahdan.

From the resulting corner, Izzdin Shafiq’s header was hacked off the line by a Selangor defender.

Stags coach V Sundramoorthy then decided to close shop in the final 15 minutes, replacing Pennant and Yasir with the defensive duo of Ismadi Mukhtar and Kwon Jun.

However, his plan was foiled in the 86th minute when Mehmet was sent off for a case of wrong identity, with the referee mistaking him for Fahrudin, who got involved in a heated exchange with Olivi after Selangor refused to return possession.

There was still time for some last-gasp drama when Wleh unleashed a spectacular overhead kick inside the box after Tampines failed to clear the ball, but the effort went just wide of the post to the relief of the Tampines fans.

The final whistle soon sounded to signal a Stags win as they secured their progress into the AFC Cup knockout stages for the first time since 2011.

Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo