Gombak halt Tampines' title charge

Tampines Rovers' charge to a second straight Great Eastern-YEO's S.League title took a slight blow on Saturday as they were held to a 1-1 draw at Gombak United.

Celebration time for the Bulls!

By Gabriel Tan at the Jurong West Stadium

Sead Hadzibulic opened the scoring for the Stags in the 21st minute when he headed home from close range, but Hafiz Rahim's opportunistic strike 13 minutes from time ensured both sides were left to settle for a share of the spoils.

The result also meant Tampines failed to take full advantage of second-placed Albirex Niigata's slip-up on Thursday, after the White Swans fell to a 3-2 loss to Hougang United, although they still hold a healthy nine-point lead at the top of the table.

Heading into Saturday's game fresh off the back of a 3-0 win over Courts Young Lions three days earlier, which had been their tenth game in the league without defeat, the Stags started the brighter of the two teams and could have taken the lead as early as the third minute.

French defender Benoit Croissant, who was returning to the starting XI after missing the last game through suspension, made his way forward for a set-piece and was picked out unmarked at the far post by a looping cross from Gligor Gligorov, only to send his header wide from six yards out.

Eight minutes later, Tampines captain Aleksandar Duric, who had grabbed a brace in the win over Young Lions, was presented with a good opening after exchanging a neat one-two with Hadzibulic but fired straight into the sidenetting.

However, the visitors only had to wait till the 21st minute to open the scoring after being awarded a freekick just inside the Gombak half. Ahmad Latiff duly floated a pinpoint ball into the box straight onto the head of Hadzibulic, who towered over his marker before expertly placing his header over a hapless Zaiful Nizam and into the top corner.

Despite going behind, the hosts were showing plenty of initiative but were just unable to find the final delivery in their attacking third and instead, it was the Stags who looked the more likely to score again, with Duric coming close a minute before the break with a snapshot that was confidently claimed by Zaiful.

Nonetheless, the hosts came out for the second half looking very adventurous and almost had a shooting opportunity in the 52nd minute when Iqbal Hussain burst into the area after exchanging passess with Hafiz Rahim. Unfortunately for Gombak, the youngster decided to take an extra touch instead of getting his shot away, allowing Sasa Dreven to race out and smother at his feet.

Four minutes later, Hafiz found space on the edge of the box and decided to lash a powerful effort towards goal, only to see his effort blocked by Croissant.

But despite the Bulls now in the ascendancy, Tampines were always going to be a threat to grab a second given the quality in their squad. Seven minutes after the hour mark, they nearly did just that when substitute Jamil Ali threaded a clever ball through to Duric, who held off his marker well before screwing a left-footed shot just wide of the far post.

Still, there was to be no denying Gombak, who finally found an equaliser ten minutes later when Mustaqim Manzur found space down the left before cutting the ball back to Nurullah Hussein. Without taking a touch, the teenage left-back drilled in a cross straight into the box, where Hafiz proceeded to stretch out a leg and got just enough to turn the ball into the back of the net, past a wrong-footed Dreven.

A minute later, the ex-Geylang United star could have grabbed a second when he picked up possession down the right and charged into the box, but with a couple of team-mates waiting in the box, Hafiz decided to go for goal and scuffed his attempt straight into the Stags goalkeeper's arms.

While a point against the defending champions would have been seen as an excellent result by many, the Bulls refused to settle for a draw and began to show even more initiative in the closing stages of the game.

Five minutes from time, centre-back Walid Lounis tore down the left and whipped in a good cross to Iqbal Hussain, who could only send a spectacular scissors-kick wide.

Ultimately, neither side could find a winner and as the final whistle blew, Tampines were left to reflect on a missed opportunity to edge further ahead at the top of the table, although they will have a second chance to all but seal the title next Wednesday when they welcome Albirex to the Clementi Stadium.

Gombak United: Zaiful Nizam, Zulfadhli Emran, Obadin Aikhena, Walid Lounis, Nurullah Hussein, Samuel Benjamin (Jung Hee-bong 46'), Christopher Anderson, Julian Aguirre (Amin Rossady 46'), Mustaqim Manzur, Hafiz Rahim (Ahmad Suhaimi 88'), Iqbal Hussain.

Tampines Rovers: Sasa Dreven, Anaz Hadee, Benoit Croissant, Jufri Taha, Imran Sahib (Noh Alam Shah 82'), Ahmad Latiff, Gligor Gligorov (Jamil Ali 61'), Ismadi Mukhtar, Ahmed Fahmie (Sazali Salleh 66'), Sead Hadzibulic, Aleksandar Duric.

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