Tampines seal second with unconvincing victory

Tampines Rovers beat Balestier Khalsa 2-0 at Jurong West Stadium on Saturday but the performance did nothing to suggest they are going into the Singapore Cup final in good shape. 

Late goals in each half from Shakir Hamzah and Billy Mehmet did the trick for the Stags, who are currently distracted by a massive pay-cut issue for next season. 

Obviously we should have done better to close down for the first goal, but we should have done in attack (too).

- Marko Kraljevic

They could easily have gone behind after just eight minutes when Hazzuwan Halim went through on goal after a mazy run, but the Balestier winger fired wide of the left-hand post with just Izwan Mahbud to beat. 

Akbar Nawas' side did go close six minutes later, with Mehmet's fierce volley inside the box tipped onto the post by Balestier goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam.

However, for the majority of the first half, they lacked accuracy in their passing and resorted to too many aimless long balls.

Having fielded Jermaine Pennant in a deep-lying role and Fabian Kwok on the right side of midfield from the get-go, Akbar then chose to switch their positions midway through.

That decision would pay off handsomely as Tampines broke the deadlock six minutes before the break. 

Pennant put in a teasing right-wing cross into the box, which had the Balestier defence in sixes and sevens, before Jordan Webb knocked it on for left-back Shakir - of all people - to thrash home a wonderful volley with his supposedly weaker right foot.

The goal should have eased off some nerves and allowed them to play with freedom, but the Stags were slightly off-colour in the second half.

They could have paid the price for their sluggishness in the 59th minute after surrendering possession in the middle, but Balestier forward Fadhil Noh fired over from three yards out when it seemed easier to score. 

Fadli Kamis then headed Shah Hirul's free kick over from a tight angle as the match edged towards the final 10 minutes. 

There was a great opportunity for Tampines to seal it on 88 minutes when Pennant was fouled just outside the area, but the latter's resulting free kick failed to even clear the wall.

The five-time champions would eventually get the crucial second goal deep into injury time, with Mehmet rounding Zaiful to tap home and round off the victory after striding onto Pennant's slide-rule pass. 

Even if we lose 50-0, it doesn't mean anything. If I can rest everyone, I will and you can put that on record.

- Akbar Nawas

A two-goal defeat seemed harsh for Balestier, as coach Marko Kraljevic lamented his side's lack of cutting edge in the final third. 

"Obviously we should have done better to close down for the first goal, but we should have done in attack (too)," said the German-Croat. "(Strikers) Niko (Tokic) and Miro (Miroslav Kristic) just came back from injury so they need some time."

"For the chance in the second half, Fadhil should have gone with his left foot instead of his right from that angle. If we had made it 1-1, it would have been a different result."

Meanwhile, victorious counterpart Akbar acknowledged that his side's performance could have been better, but is nonetheless pleased to get the three points which sealed second place. 

"For the neutrals, it might be a boring game," said the 41-year-old. "But considering that the circumstances weren't easy, the most important matter is to secure second and that's what we've achieved. 

"Even if we've won just 1-0, I would have taken it. I'm actually happy that we managed to penetrate and score the second goal because Balestier were defending quite deep."

Akbar also hinted he will be resting players for Wednesday's final league game against Albirex Niigata (S) as they gear up for the Cup final against the same opponents three days later.

"This game is inconsequential. Even if we lose 50-0, it doesn't mean anything," he joked. 

"I will take the opprtunity to rest players and give some of them match fitness. If I can rest everyone, I will and you can put that on record."