Battle of the Straits: It’s do-or-die

It’s been dubbed the biggest game in Singapore football in 2016, and that’s no understatement as Tampines Rovers host Selangor FA on Tuesday.

Neither side was expected to struggle in booking their place in the last 16 of the AFC Cup, but Group E has thrown up a few surprises, and with Filipino outfit Ceres already guaranteed of a spot in the knockout stage, either Tampines or Selangor will fall at the first hurdle.

It will be a major blow for whichever club is sent packing – and a huge wake-up call to their administrators.

There are many similarities between the way Tampines and Selangor approached the 2016 campaign. The Singapore outfit went on a pre-season spending spree, signing former Arsenal and Liverpool ace Jermaine Pennant, while recruiting Billy Mehmet, Jordan Webb and Fazrul Nawaz locally. At the same time, Selangor disposed of coach Mehmet Durakovic and brought in Pahang boss Zainal Abidin Hassan who brought four of his top players with him. Big moves from both clubs, but ones that haven’t paid off.

Selangor are out of the FA Cup and six points off the summit of the league table, while Tampines have fallen away after a fast start to the season, and now trail Albirex Niigata FC in the league standings. Matters off the field appear to be even worse for Tampines, with a cash-flow problem well documented.

All of this only adds to the win-or-bust nature of Tuesday’s fixture. For the neutral it’s hard not to rub one’s hands with glee at the prospect of such a mouth-watering clash.

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Selangor only need a draw to progress, but coach Zainal Abidin Hassan has insisted that his side will not sit back and play for a point – they want all three.

“We will want to hold the tactical advantage as it will be very difficult to hold out for a draw over the full 90 minutes,” said Red Giants coach Hassan, who longs to match the feat achieved by fellow Malaysian outfit Johor Darul Ta’zim who won last year’s AFC Cup.

“Tampines have players who have good exposure and experience in the domestic and international games. We suffered a big loss the last time we met them even though we had a lot of chances.”

He added to ESPN FC: “We’re not going to park the bus; we’re just going to play our normal game. There will be specific instructions given to each player and I hope they live up to the occasion because it’s a big game.”

The equation is simpler for Tampines boss V Sundramoorthy: Nothing but a win will do.

The 50-year-old is not concerned by this, though, and has asserted that his side will achieve their task in style, with goals set to flow freely – although they may just do so at both ends.

“We have to win to progress, so of course I will take a 4-3 win over a goalless draw,” he told the New Paper.

“We want to excite and entertain, and we are confident we will make it. If it has to be a big scoreline, so be it.”

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Sundramoorthy added: “Look at the way Tampines line up, we are always pushing up to attack. This means that opponents will have chances. We can create 10 and our opponents may have two. If we score four from our 10 chances, we are home and hosed… at Tampines, we have more attacking players, so naturally, we have to play to our strength.”

Having started their AFC Cup campaign with two wins from two, Tampines looked set to become the first Singaporean club to make it to the knockout stage since Home United in 2012. Now an early exit – and with it the failure to grab a much-needed US$15,000 reward from the AFC – is a very real possibility.

There is much more than Causeway bragging rights on the line at the National Stadium on Tuesday, let’s hope the game lives up to the hype.

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