By Gabriel TanFollow @@gabetan13
Reporting from the Toa Payoh Stadium
Although it will take a minor miracle to prevent the Stags from being crowned champions again in 2013, the result – coupled with second-placed Albirex Niigata (S)’s 2-0 win at Tanjong Pagar United – means they are still not mathematically guaranteed the title as they are 12 points clear with four games remaining.
However, they could have made sure of that on Tuesday evening had they claimed all three points at the Toa Payoh Stadium, but it certainly was not going to be an easy task coming up against the newly-crowned Starhub League Cup champions, who had already beaten them 4-0 in the league earlier in the season.
Just seven minutes in, Balestier issued the first warning side when Qiu Li’s corner was diverted towards goal by Ridwan Jamil’s firm header, but Andre Martins reacted well to claw it away from the top corner.
The hosts were looking bright early on but Tampines were always going to be a threat, especially with their threat from set-pieces.
In the 18th minute, a Shahdan Sulaiman corner sailed all the way to Seiji Kaneko, whose fiercely-struck shot was charged down by an opposition defender
Three minutes later, another set-piece delivery from Shahdan was met by Aleksandar Duric and nodded down to Jamil Ali, who could only fire away a snapshot on the turn way over.
The Tigers then had another good opening in the 33rd minute when Park Kang-jin found space down the right and played a lovely cut-back to Kim Min-ho, but the unmarked midfielder could only sky his shot from just inside the area.
Two minutes later, they created another chance when Qiu’s corner was flicked on by Jaslee Hatta and flashed across the face of goal, narrowly missing Paul Cunningham’s desperate lunge.
By now, the Stags were really finding things tough against a determined Balestier outfit but Shahdan was continuing to look dangerous for them; firing a freekick on the edge of the box into the sidenetting three minutes after the restart.
Khairul Amri, who had come on for Vitor Ladeiras at the break, then nearly broke the deadlock for the visitors with a moment of magic in the 59th minute; finding space down the left and skipping inside Poh Yi Feng before bending a shot on his right foot back off the bar.
Still, Martins continued to be the busier of the two keepers and was called into another fine save four minutes later after Jaslee’s long ball was flicked on by Cunningham to Kim, who instinctively sent a first-time volley towards goal.
Zakariah Nerani was then really called into meaningful action for the first time in the 71st minute after he was initially caught in no man’s land as Duric’s right-wing cross found its way to Amri, but recovered in time and bravely smothered at the Singapore international’s feet.
Ten minutes later, the Balestier custodian did well again when Jamil looked set to race through after Shahdan’s clearance had bounced over Jaslee, racing off his line and doing enough to get the ball to safety.
But as the game entered its closing stages, the Tigers looked the likelier of the two sides to find the winner and Kim was denied again in the 83rd minute when he broke free inside the area with a sharp turn, only to see his shot from six yards blocked by Martins.
And four minutes from time, it seemed as though the breakthrough had finally arrived when Jaslee tapped a freekick to Cunningham, who unleashed a ferocious 35-yard thunderbolt heading towards the top corner.
Nonetheless, Martins was not to be beaten and produced another flying save to tip it wide, earning his side a precious point that takes them on the brink of a third consecutive league crown.
Balestier Khalsa: Zakariah Nerani, Poh Yi Feng, Jaslee Hatta, Paul Cunningham, Syed Thaha, Ridwan Jamil, Tengku Mushadad, Park Kang-jin, Kim Min-ho, Hamqaamal Shah (Zulkiffli Hassim 62’), Qiu Li.
Tampines Rovers: Andre Martins, Ruzaini Zainal, Kunihiro Yamashita, Seiji Kaneko, Jufri Taha, Fahrudin Mustafic, Shahdan Sulaiman, Vitor Ladeiras (Khairul Amri 46’), Imran Sahib (Diogo Caramelo 77’), Jamil Ali, Aleksandar Duric (Ahmed Fahmie 85’).
Image courtesy of Balestier Khalsa FC (Andrew Lim)