SINGAPORE - A magnificent second-half turnaround - which included three goals in 14 minutes - helped Tampines Rovers beat Albirex Niigata 4-1 on Sunday night (Nov 29) and usurp the Japanese side's place at the top of the Singapore Premier League (SPL).
With just two games left this season, the title race now looks likely to go down to the wire next Saturday. Tampines are on 27 points, with Albirex a point behind. Third-placed Lion City Sailors, who beat the Young Lions 4-0 at Jurong West Stadium on Sunday, are four points behind Tampines.
Said coach Gavin Lee: "The most important thing for us now is to recover and try to be as fresh as possible for the next game.
"Neither team is going to be at 100 per cent, but we'll just reiterate what we want to do, and stay calm. A lot of things can happen in football and we'll just control what we can control."
Albirex took the lead in the 38th minute when Tomoyuki Doi punished Baihakki Khaizan's weak header meant for his own goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari, and dinked the ball over the Stags' custodian.
Tampines came close to equalising moments before the break, when their midfielder Kyoga Nakamura's powerful shot from the edge of the box crashed off the bar, after he had balletically turned his marker.
Stags coach Gavin Lee then threw on Madhu Mohana and Irwan Shah on for the start of the second half, and the move paid instant dividends.
Just three minutes after the restart, Yasir Hanapi found Madhu free at the back post, and the full-back headed the ball back into the danger area for Boris Kopitovic to equalise from close range.
Eight minutes later, Amirul Adli put Tampines in front at Jurong East Stadium when poor defending by Albirex at a corner saw the ball break to him at the far post.
The Stags then extended their lead in the 62nd minute when Madhu seized on a slip by Hiroyoshi Kamata and played Kopitovic in again, with the Montenegrin striker finishing with aplomb on his second try.
Tampines substitute Taufik Suparno then added gloss to the scoreline in the 88th minute, latching onto a stray pass by Yasuhiro Hanada and firing home the fourth.
Said Madhu: "We came back in the second half once before against Young Lions (on Nov 17) and we know we're a good enough team to do it against Albirex too.
"We just stayed calm and did not panic. Now, we have to forget this result and focus on Sailors (on Wednesday). It's not easy but we have the depth to get the results we need."
Lee, who said he opted for a composed half-time team talk in which he even showed his players clips of them playing at their best, said: "We regularly remind ourselves we need to be calm to play at our best.
"We don't like making mistakes and conceding goals but it's part of the game, and how we react to them is more important than the actual moment itself... It's not about changing the plan or working harder.
"The players worked hard but they've played many games in a short space of time so we knew the first half would be like a warm-up to get the engine going."
The win helped Tampines pull off a double over Albirex, after a 2-0 win last month, and is a result they hope will help them to their sixth league title and first since 2013.
White Swans coach Keiji Shigetomi pointed to the Stags' experience as being the difference between the sides.
"In the second half, my players were overwhelmed by the opponent and lost possession easily," he said. "But I have told them not to be discouraged. There are two more games, and we must try our best to win them, and hope for the best."
Tampines aced arguably their toughest test as the season draws to a close, but still have two more tricky fixtures to negotiate.
They play third-placed Sailors on Wednesday, with the Sailors a significantly improved side since the Stags' 4-0 win in the reverse fixture in March, before the season was suspended because of Covid-19.
They then end the season against Geylang International on Saturday in an Eastern Derby - they pair drew 1-1 on Nov 7.
Lion City also have an outside chance of winning the title but need to win both their remaining games and hope both Tampines and Albirex drop points in theirs.
Albirex, in comparison, have the easier run-in on paper.
On Wednesday, they entertain bottom side Tanjong Pagar United - still looking for their first win - before wrapping up their season on Saturday by visiting a Hougang United side who have decided to play the remainder of their season with an all-local line-up after letting their imports go at the end of their contracts.
Fixtures aside, the permutation is simple - win their next two games, and Tampines are champions. And if Stags coach Gavin Lee can gee his players up to perform like they did in the second half against Albirex, then there is a good chance they could finally end their seven-year wait for the league title.