SINGAPORE - After seeing his side drop six points in their four previous Singapore Premier League (SPL) games, and lose top scorer Jordan Webb through a red card in their last match, Tampines Rovers coach Gavin Lee urged his players to stay calm in the crisis.
On Wednesday (Nov 25), the Stags responded with a straightforward 2-0 win over Hougang United at Hougang Stadium to keep pace with leaders Albirex Niigata, who beat the Young Lions by the same score at Jurong East.
In Webb's absence, Boris Kopitovic picked up the scoring slack and pounced at the back post to stab home the opener after Baihakki Khaizan had flicked on Zehrudin Mehmedovic's 22nd-minute corner.
Hougang were also missing their imports, as defender Zac Anderson and midfielder Charlie Machell were left out of the side after they declined to extend their contract beyond Nov 30 to see out the season, which was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
With an all-local line-up, the Cheetahs missed the duo's physical presence - Baihakki had towered over Afiq Noor for the opener - and Machell's direct free-kick expertise, although they did not win many in danger areas in this game.
Hougang coach Clement Teo, whose side have lost three on the spin to fall to sixth and lose ground in the fight for an AFC Cup spot, said: "The decision was made when the updated fixtures came out in October. We need to look ahead and prepare for the two games they will not be available for.
"I thought our local boys showed their capabilities. Anders Aplin did well against Boris and I'm happy with how we played against a strong side. We will come back stronger against Tanjong Pagar on Saturday."
On the other hand, it was the Tampines reserves who impressed. Winger Danish Siregar was lively and should have scored his first SPL goal in the 28th minute, but the ball flashed wide after he combined well with Mehmedovic.
His replacement Taufik Suparno went one better. After coming on for the second half, the 25-year-old took just 36 seconds to extend Tampines' lead and seal the three points.
The Stags threatened to score more, but found Ridhuan Barudin in good form as Taufik and Kyoga Nakamura's shots were well-saved.
Lee said: "It wasn't easy to play two games in 72 hours (after the 2-2 draw with Tanjong Pagar United on Sunday), so credit to the boys for getting the job done on a heavy pitch.
"We heard the rumours about Hougang, but we can focus only on ourselves. I'm happy with how our boys stepped up. People see Taufik's goal, but they should also look at the defensive work he put in with Irwan Shah on the left that eventually led to the goal.
"We recognise the stakes are high at this stage of the season, we need to win every game to win the title, and we rebounded well tonight. It is up to us to figure out how to keep it up for the last three games."
In last night's other match, the Lion City Sailors remain third after beating fourth-placed Geylang International 3-0 at Our Tampines Hub, while fifth-placed Balestier Khalsa were held 2-2 by bottom side Tanjong Pagar at Bishan Stadium.
Wins for Tampines (24 points) and Albirex (26) have set up a tantalising top-of-the-table clash on Sunday as both teams meet at Jurong East in what could be the title decider.
An Albirex win would see the Japanese side open up a five-point lead with just two games left against winless Tanjong Pagar and an out-of-form Hougang, and that should effectively seal their fourth league triumph in five seasons.
However, a Tampines win would see the title race go down to the wire as they will replace Albirex at the summit by just a point. They then have to play the third-placed Sailors (20) - who will stay mathematically alive in the title race if they beat the Young Lions on Sunday - and Geylang in their last two games.
Draw, and the title initiative stays with Albirex, while Tampines will be in a tricky situation as they will then need to fend off the Sailors for the AFC Champions League spot that is handed to the top local finisher.