By Noah Tan at the Clementi Stadium
The Stags came into this game on the back of a morale sapping 3-4 loss to Albirex Nigata in the Great Eastern-YEO's S.League but showed no signs of any ill-effects from that defeat as they dominated proceedings, and duly took the lead in the 28th minute through veteran striker Aleksandar Duric.
Tay Peng Kee's men doubled their lead three minutes after half-time through Ahmad Latiff's fantastic effort from the edge of the area to take control of the game.
Then came the most controversial moment of the match, as Sparks defender Kim Woo-chul picked up his second yellow of the game after referee Sukhbir Singh deemed the South Korean to have committed a bookable offence for taking a free-kick too quickly.
Tampines were themselves reduced to 10 men late into stoppage time after Benoît Croissant's reckless lunge on Loyola substitute Mark Hartmann earned him a second booking but the Stags managed to hang on amidst some late Loyola pressure to take a two-goal advantage into Sunday's second leg.
With a healthy and boisterous crowd of Filipinos cheering the visitors on from the stands, it was no surprise that they showed attacking intent right from the get-go, and they could have earned a penalty in the third minute when Jeong Byeong-yeol cut into the box from the left and appeared to be tripped by Imran Sahib's trailing leg but Sukhbir, who had a clear view of the incident, was unimpressed with the penalty shout.
Loyola were doing all the early running, with Philip Younghusband in particular looking lively upfront for the United Football League outfit. However, it was Tampines who fashioned the first shot on target in the 13th minute when Duric reacted quickest to an Latiff knock-down to fire a snapshot from just outside the box which Sparks custodian Ref Cuaresma had no trouble holding on to.
The Sparks were playing an aggressive high-tempo game and Peng Kee's men were on the end of several tasty challenges, one of which, a late challenge on Mustafic Fahrudin, earned Kim his first yellow card of the night.
Sead Hadžibulić was the next to test Cuaresma with a looping header from a Latiff free-kick but the 29-year-old was more than equal to it. The Sparks custodian then launched a devastatingly-quick counterattack with a fabulous throw-out to Younghusband, who combined well with Jeong on the left and almost managed to get on the end of his team-mate's return but for the outstretched boot of the excellent Croissant, who managed to snuff out the danger.
Gligor Gligorov had the Tampines fans cheering prematurely in the 27th minute when he embarked on a mazy run before firing a shot which rippled the wrong side of the net. However, it did not take long for the raucous Stags fans to celebrate for real as barely a minute later, Hadžibulić set Duric free with a delicious lofted through-ball from the back and the experienced Singapore international showed great composure to lift the ball over the onrushing Cuaresma and into the net to put Tampines in the lead.
The goal rocked Loyola and they tried to respond with an early change in the 37th minute, bringing on highly-popular winger James Younghusband, starting the game on the bench owing to illness, for the ineffective Simon Greatwich.
And the substitute almost made an immediate impact for his side when good combination play between him and his brother Philip Younghusband almost set the latter through on goal, but Croissant's last-ditch tackle ensured the Stags would take their advantage into the break.
Throughout the first half, Tay cut a frustrated figure on the touchline having seen his side dominate possession but fail to create many clear goalscoring opportunities apart from when they took the lead, and it was clear his half-time team-talk had an effect as Tampines started the second half in blistering fashion.
A minute into the half, Gligorov missed an absolute sitter from six yards out when, unmarked and with an open goal to aim for, he somehow managed to head a cross from the effervescent Latiff over the bar when it looked easier to score.
However, his glaring mistake was soon forgotten barely three minutes later when Imran cut in from the right and laid the ball off for Latiff on the edge of the penalty area, who took one touch to stop the ball dead before showing great agility to swivel and fire an unstoppable shot into the bottom corner to score the night's second goal.
Watch: Singapore Cup: Tampines 2-0 Loyola... More Videos
Despite now being two goals down, the Sparks showed great character to try and get back into the game and had the ball in the net in the 57th minute through Chad Gould's header from a Kim free-kick. It looked a legitimate goal but Sukhbir disallowed the goal, claiming Kim had not waited for the whistle to blow before taking the free-kick.
Amidst the Filipino side's vehement protests, Loyola's hopes of making a comeback were dealt another severe blow as Kim was handed his marching orders for failing to listen to instructions regarding the free-kick.
Against 10 men, the Stags expectedly took control of the game and Cuaresma had to be alert in goal to keep out decent efforts from Duric, Latiff and Gligorov. However, the Sparks custodian was helpless to stop Duric from putting the ball into the back of the net in the 72nd minute after the 42-year-old ran in at the back post to meet an Latiff cross, only for the goal to be ruled out for offside.
Both the Younghusband brothers had been a real handful throughout the game for the Stags defence and they combined well once again 15 minutes from time when Philip's deflected shot fell to James unmarked on the right but his sliced shot could only find the side-netting.
As both teams started to show signs of fatigue with the game nearing its conclusion, Tampines managed to fashion one last chance of the game in the 87th minute when substitute Jamil Ali's cross from the right was well met by Hadžibulić in the box but Cuaresma produced a superb one-handed reaction save to deny the Serbian.
There was still time for more drama as the reliable Croissant hacked down Hartmann deep into stoppage time to earn himself a second yellow for the night, but it was too late for the Sparks to capitalize on the dismissal and the Stags now head into the second leg of the still delicately-poised cup tie in pole position.
Tampines Rovers: Sasa Dreven, Jufri Taha, Benoit Croissant, Anaz Hadee, Imran Sahib, Mustafic Fahrudin, Gligor Gligorov (Sazali Salleh 79'), Ismadi Mukhtar (Jamil Ali 82'), Ahmad Latiff, Sead Hadzibulic, Aleksandar Duric.
Loyola Meralco Sparks: Ref Cuaresma, Chad Gould, Jang Jo-won, Park Min-ho, Roxy Dorlas, Alexandro Elnar, Simon Greatwich (James Younghusband 37'), Andres Gonzales (Mark Hartmann 68'), Jeong Byeong-yeol (Jake Morallo 85'), Kim Woo-chul, Philip Younghusband.