SINGAPORE - Looking at the crestfallen faces of the Tampines Rovers players at the final whistle of their match against Lion City Sailors on Wednesday (Dec 2), one would not have been able to tell they had just confirmed a historic qualification to the group stages of next season's AFC Champions League.
The Stags played out a 1-1 draw against the Sailors at Bishan Stadium to maintain their four-point lead over the hosts with just one game left in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) season.
While they will finish as the best local side and earn a spot at the AFC tournament, the achievement was overshadowed by the result, as the draw meant Tampines relinquished their position at the top of the table after Albirex Niigata beat Tanjong Pagar United 3-0 at Jurong East to move one point clear ahead of Saturday's final round of fixtures.
Sailors coach Aurelio Vidmar likened the match to a chess game that ebbed and flowed, with his side taking the initiative early on and scoring via former national skipper Shahril Ishak, when he squeezed in the ball from a tight angle on his second attempt in the 45th minute.
But the momentum then swung the visitors' way after Jordan Webb was brought on in the second half. The Canadian forward chested Yasir Hanapi's cross on to Zehrudin Mehmedovic to finish past Hassan Sunny in the 63rd minute.
The Stags just could not muster a third comeback win in five games, with Tampines goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari coming up with a big save to deny Hafiz Nor and consign Vidmar's men to third spot and a place in the AFC Cup.
Tampines coach Gavin Lee hailed the efforts of his team and noted that fatigue definitely played a part in the poor finishing shown by both sides.
He said: "The challenge was to maintain quality and number of actions towards the end of the game, but any team would have struggled with this schedule.
"Our boys have made club history and we should feel proud of that. We could have put ourselves in a better position as far as the title race is concerned, but we have put in one year of top work and we will try to finish as strong as we can. We will not give up until the final whistle of the final game."
Vidmar added: "We cannot fault the efforts of the players who have done an amazing job to play 11 games in 36 days. This was not the result we wanted... we were playing catch-up for most of the season, and it could have been different with a full season."
Elsewhere, the race for the second AFC Cup spot will also go to the final day after Balestier Khalsa and Geylang International produced matching 2-1 away wins at Hougang United and Young Lions respectively to be deadlocked at 19 points, with the Tigers ahead on goal difference.
It will be the closest and most exciting finishes to an SPL season in recent years on Saturday.
With a one-point advantage, Albirex will seal their fourth title in five seasons if they win at Hougang, or match Tampines' result against Geylang at Our Tampines Hub.
The Stags, on the other hand, have to win to stand a better chance of clinching their first league title since 2013 and hope the White Swans drop points. There is also the possibility of Tampines winning the league on goal difference should they get only a point against Geylang and Albirex lose by two to Hougang.
On the AFC Cup front, Balestier, who play the Sailors, will qualify as long as they match Geylang's result and maintain their superior goal difference. If both teams have matching results, the Eagles have to hope for a four goal swing to make it to Asia's second-tier club competition.