By Noah Tan at the Jalan Besar Stadium
Tampines came into this game knowing that anything but a victory would hand the initiative in the title race back to DPMM, but it was SAFFC who opened the scoring in the 51st minute through Shimpei Sakurada, who was greatly aided by some slack Tampines defending.
The Warriors' joy was short-lived however, as Ahmad Latiff Khamaruddin evened the score for the league leaders 11 minutes later with a firm header from inside the box. However, more shambolic defending by the Stags backline allowed SAFFC substitute Fazrul Nawaz to once again fire his side in the lead in the 83rd minute.
Just when it seemed like Tay Peng Kee's men were headed for a devastating loss, Tampines centre-back Benoit Croissant popped up with a brilliant goal two minutes from time to level things up, before Jamil Ali continued his fine record of scoring in stoppage time with a calmly taken goal two minutes into added time to earn a valuable three points for the Stags.
SAFFC came into this game on the back of a decent three game unbeaten run and they started the game strongly. Aliff Shafaein came close to opening the scoring in the 3rd minute with a cheeky lob which just went over the Tampines goal after the attacking midfielder spotted Stags custodian Sasa Dreven off his line.
Tampines almost took the lead against the run of play four minutes later through striker Sead Hadzibulic but his header flashed agonizingly across goal with SAFFC goalkeeper Sharil Jantan well beaten.
The game got scrappier as the game wore on, with both sides conceding possession cheaply and in the 25th minute, Warriors captain Daniel Bennett's sloppy pass almost gifted evergreen striker Aleksandar Duric a goal but the 42-year-old uncharacteristically fluffed his line to spare Bennett's blushes.
The final chance of the half fell to SAFFC seven minutes later when Aliff powered down the left flank before cutting the ball back into the box for striker Mislav Karoglan who unleashed a fierce shot at goal, but Tampines wing-back Ismadi Mukhtar slid in to make a fantastic block and ensured the score remained even at the interval.
With their closest title rivals expected to beat cellar dwellers Woodlands Wellington on Sunday, Tampines coach Tay Peng Kee knew the onus was on his side to get a positive result and he set his team out to attack in the second half. Duric was once again the focal point of all of the Stags attacks and the Singapore international very nearly put his side in front three minutes after the break when he was set free by Hadzibulic, but his effort went just wide off the post.
The usually clinical Duric was finding luck in front of goal hard to come by in this game and he missed another sitter barely a minute later after Ahmad's Latiff scuffed shot ricocheted to him in the box, but his snap-shot from five yards out was saved at point blank range by Warriors goalkeeper Shahril Jantan.
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Duric's profligacy in front of goal proved costly as the Warriors took the lead two minutes later; a cross from the right found Aliff unmarked in the box and although his initial effort was saved by Dreven, Sakurada reacted quickest to the rebound and he made no mistake from 10 yards out.
The goal stung Tampines into action and they started committing numbers in attack in a bid to grab an equalizer but the Stags were finding it hard to find a way past the excellent Shahril in goal, who produced fine saves in quick succession to deny efforts from Duric and Ahmad Latiff to preserve his side's lead.
However, the brave SAFFC resistance was finally broken in the 62nd minute, with Ahmad Latiff once again the hero for the Stags when he rose highest to power a header past the despairing dive of Shahril following an inviting Ismadi cross from the left.
The Clementi Stadium outfit almost grabbed a second two minutes later when Duric managed to wriggle his way past two opposition defenders in the box but the luckless striker lost his footing just as he was about to pull the trigger and allowed SAFFC to clear their lines.
SAFFC left winger Tatsuro Inui was proving a real handful for the Tampines backline and the Japanese very nearly set up Karoglan in the 72nd minute with a dangerous cross but the striker's outstretched boot could only poke the ball wide.
Eight minutes later, Duric was again presented with a golden opportunity to put his side in front after being set free on the left by Hadzibuc's header but his fierce effort from a tight angle hit the inside of the post and rebounded safely into the grateful arms of Shahril.
Once again, Duric's miss came back to haunt him as SAFFC took the lead seven minutes from time after the effervescent Inui delivered a pinpoint cross into the box for Aliff, whose initial header was well saved by Dreven, but the 22-year-old goalkeeper was once again let down by his stagnant backline who reacted too slowly and allowed Warriors substitute Farul Nawaz, who scored his first international goal on Tuesday, to tap home the rebound.
The Stags however refused to give up and they got their rewards five minutes later from the unlikeliest of sources. From a poor defensive header out from the SAFFC backline, Stags defender Benoit Croissant leveled the scores with a magnificent volley from just outside the penalty box which nestled into the top corner of Shahril's net.
Buoyed by the goal, Tampines poured forward and grabbed a dramatic winner two minutes into stoppage time after the impressive Ahmad Latiff sent an exquisite through ball to set up substitute Jamil Ali, who coolly rounded the onrushing Shahril before slotting the ball into an empty net to send the Tampines fans into raptures.
With the win, Tampines are now seven points ahead of DPMM and Albirex Nigata, albeit having played two games more, and will retain the title if both the Bruneian and Japanese clubs fail to pick up maximum points from their remaining games.
Tampines Rovers: Sasa Dreven, Jufri Taha, Benoit Croissant, Anaz Hadee (Noh Alam Shah 73'), Imran Sahib (Ahmad Fahmie 86'), Sazali Salleh (Jamil Ali 57'), Gligor Gligorov, Ahmad Latiff, Ismadi Mukhtar, Sead Hadzibulic, Aleksandar Duric.
SAFFC: Shahril Jantan, Zulfadli Zainal Abidin, Noh Rahman, Daniel Bennett (C), Marin Vidosevic, Shimpei Sakurada, Ruzaini Zainal (Fazrul Nawaz 69'), Shukor Zailan, Tatsuro Inui, Aliff Shafaein, Mislav Karoglan