Football: Tampines return to SPL summit with resilient win over defending champions Albirex

Boris Kopitovic's first-half header was enough for Tampines Rovers to beat Albirex Niigata 1-0. PHOTO: TAMPINES ROVERS

SINGAPORE – Tampines Rovers showed their title-winning credentials with a dogged display as they defeated defending Singapore Premier League champions Albirex Niigata 1-0 at the Jurong East Stadium on Sunday.

The Stags returned to the top of the table, one point clear of second-placed Lion City Sailors and four ahead of Albirex, who have dropped to fourth but with a game in hand.

Tampines coach Gavin Lee praised his players not only for the win, but also the fact that they had managed to pull it off despite “three quarters” of his players feeling unwell.

“A lot of them are carrying illnesses so they’re not fully 100 per cent,” he said. “So for them to go out there and kind of match them towards the end, that shows a lot of character from the bunch. We didn’t know what our line-up would be till today.”

On their second win in five years at Albirex’s home, Lee said: “We knew this was kind of a fortress for them. We worked hard in training and full credit to the team for finding a way today. Now the question is, can we maintain what we’re doing?”

After a cagey start, it did not take long for the visiting Stags to break the deadlock. The in-form Faris Ramli, who already has four league goals, turned provider with a looping cross to the back post in the 13th minute which was headed home by the 1.89m-tall Boris Kopitovic.

Still reeling in shock from conceding their first goal of the season, Albirex were fortunate not to go two down minutes later when Tampines captain Yasir Hanapi flashed a left-footed shot narrowly wide.

Pressing for an equaliser, Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga made a bold change after the break. Forward Riku Fukashiro replaced midfielder Keito Hariya as attacker Seia Kunori dropped to a midfield role alongside captain Asahi Yokokawa in a 4-4-2 formation.

The tactical switch nearly paid dividends in the 53rd minute when left-back Sho Fuwa crashed a shot against the upright.

In a final throw of the dice in the 79th minute, Yoshinaga threw caution to the wind and sent another forward, Keito Komatsu, on for Fuwa – with six attackers on the pitch.

Despite Albirex’s all-or-nothing approach, Tampines repelled wave after wave of attack and hung on to secure the win, much to the delight of their boisterous away support.

Man of the Match Kopitovic praised Albirex for their “very good and attacking football”, adding: “But tonight we showed our style of football and even when they attacked a lot we maintained our shape and managed the game very well.”

Yoshinaga, who is helming a much-changed side from last season, said: “We need to improve in the quality of our chances created around the box. I don’t think Tampines created many chances but in one of their first attacks, they scored first and we could not.”


After leading Tampines to top-three finishes in three of his last four seasons, Lee might be close to a breakthrough.

The addition of centre-back Milos Zlatkovic and midfielder Shah Shahiran have plugged gaps in defence and allowed Lee to impose his brand of high-octane, attacking football.

With three clean sheets in five matches, just one fewer than their total last season, Tampines are looking much better defensively and finally showing the consistency required to be title contenders.

Unlike previous seasons, Lee has settled into a preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, morphing into a 3-2-5 shape in possession, while sticking to a core group of players which breeds stability.

Lee has also displayed his tactical nous by converting forward Glenn Kweh into a left-back while helping Faris rediscover his form at right wing. Should they maintain their form, the five-time champions could be set for their first league title since 2013.

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