SPL 2022: Resurgent Jaguars play out entertaining 1-1 draw with Geylang to stay top of the league

A share of the spoils for the Jaguars and Eagles as Hazzuwan Halim’s equaliser for Geylang International cancels out Reo Nishiguchi’s fourth goal of the season for Tanjong Pagar United

Hazzuwan Halim celebrates his first goal for Geylang International which helped his team draw level with the Jaguars. PHOTO: AIA SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

Singapore, 20 March 2022 - League leaders Tanjong Pagar United were held to an eventful 1-1 draw at the Jurong East Stadium by a resilient Geylang International on Saturday evening.

With the result, the Jaguars go one point clear of last season’s title contenders Lion City Sailors and Albirex Niigata (S), after four games played in a season comprising 28 matches.

Head coach Hasrin Jailani, 46, refused to talk up his team’s chances despite defying all expectations with their unbeaten start, upsetting title-contenders Albirex in the process.

“Honestly, we are taking it one game at a time for now, to stay focused and not look beyond that yet. Maybe if we have the full team with Shakir (Hamzah) back, then we can aim a little bit higher,” he said.

The Jaguars made three changes from the team that defeated Balestier Khalsa in a 5-3 thriller last weekend. Midfielder Faizal Raffi, 26, and forward Syukri Bashir, 23, came in for Fathullah Rahmat, 19, and Khairul Amri, 37 respectively. Defender Naufal Ilham, 19, filled in as the mandatory under-23 starter with wing-back Shodai Nishikawa, 28, ruled out.

Geylang, using a 4-4-2 shape, made just one alteration from their 3-2 defeat at the Hougang Stadium last time out with experienced defender Abdil Qaiyyim, 32, replacing Ahmad Syahir, 29, in defence. Croatian Sime Zuzul, 26, and Frenchman Vincent Bezecourt, 28, led the line for the Eagles.

The dynamic duo nearly started proceedings for the evening in the eighth minute. An accurate pullback from Zuzul found Bezecourt, a former Major League Soccer Supporters’ Shield winner with the New York Red Bulls, whose left-footed strike narrowly sailed over the bar.

Thereafter, Jaguars left wing-back Aqhari Abdullah found Syukri Bashir in the six-yard box, but the latter’s effort was smartly saved by Geylang goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam. Aqhari then found himself in referee Ahmad A’Qashah’s book after bringing down right-back Fadli Kamis on the halfway line advancing forward with intent.

Chances were exchanged evenly on both ends, as Geylang’s Takahiro Tezuka saw his free kick in the 26th minute parried for a corner, before Tanjong Pagar’s Reo Nishiguchi’s speculative half volley from distance went wide of the post.

Tanjong Pagar almost went in front before the break, when Nishiguchi received the ball on the edge of the penalty box. Dribbling past surrounding defenders with ease, the 24-year-old forward rolled the ball across goal with his left foot, only for Zaiful Nizam to parry it against the post.

Blake Riccuito has continued to play a pivotal role for the Jaguars this season, as part of their resurgence. PHOTO: AIA SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

Nishiguchi again went close on two occasions after the restart, seeing his free-kick saved by Tanjong Pagar custodian Zharfan Rohaizad on the 53rd minute mark, before flashing a left-footed shot struck on the half-volley wide of the post shortly after.

Geylang nearly had a freak goal of their own, when left-back Faizal Roslan sent in a cross-cum-shot from the left flank, leaving Zharfan scrambling back to his goal-line. The delivery crashed against the upright much to the goalkeeper’s relief.

Drama struck on the hour mark, when the away side had a penalty claim awarded against them when substitute Ahmad Syahir had a coming together with Jaguars defender Shahrin Saberin inside the penalty box. Referee Ahmad A’Qashah awarded a freekick in favour of Tanjong Pagar, drawing the ire of the passionate Ultras Eagles, Geylang’s hardcore fan group.

Just minutes later, Reo Nishiguchi would finally get his name on the scoresheet, latching onto a lofted through ball launched from deep by Tanjong Pagar midfielder Mirko Sugic. The Japanese forward effortlessly shrugged off a flailing Abdil Qaiyyim, before giving the home side the advantage with a composed finish that nestled into the back of the net.

Geylang manager Noor Ali signalled for a change of tactics during the 64th minute, bringing off midfielder Huzaifah Aziz for forward Fareez Farhan in an attacking change, with Bezecourt dropping deeper into a midfield role. Ten minutes later, that decision led to the eventual equaliser.

Substitute Fareez Farhan received the ball on the counter, striding towards goal before releasing a cross-field pass for winger Hazzuwan Halim inside the right edge of the penalty box. The latter then struck a first-time finessed effort on his left foot that sneaked into the net via the post, leaving Zharfan rooted to the spot.

Reo Nishiguchi celebrates his fourth goal of the season as his goal put Tanjong Pagar United ahead. PHOTO: AIA SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

Both sides pushed on for a winner in the closing stages of a match that could have gone either way. Tanjong Pagar were awarded a corner in the last minute of injury time, but Raihan Rahman puzzlingly decided to take a short corner to waste time instead of creating a final chance for the Jaguars; earning himself a yellow card in the process.

The match ended in a draw, an honourable result for each of the league’s two most in-form teams.

Eagles head coach Noor Ali was pleased with his new-look team’s performance despite the draw.

“I think it’s only three games in the season, we had quite a number of new players coming in and it’s good to see some really positive performances,” he said.

“Tezuka is one player that has been excellent for us throughout the three games. He always wants to do more and more … he’s the midfield general for us and hopefully he can keep this up over the course of the season,” the 46-year-old added.

On the other end, Tanjong Pagar coach Hasrin Jailani cited the upcoming international break as a good time to refocus the team.

“This two-week break is important. The morale of the team is high as we are still unbeaten. Nobody was called up for the national team, so we will have the full two weeks to prepare,” he said.

Picking up his third assist of the season to Reo Nishiguchi, 27-year-old midfielder Mirko Sugic has had a flying start to the season ever since arriving from Croatia just last month; scoring two crucial goals against Balestier last weekend.

Tanjong Pagar United stay top of the Singapore Premier League after Saturday's round of matches from Matchweek 4. PHOTO: AIA SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

Yet the Tanjong Pagar midfielder was humble in assessing his own display.

“My performance was not so good today because it was the hottest game I experienced. I struggled with the moments, but that ball to Reo was not so much about me. Reo had like almost 80% of the job to finish, it wasn’t a clear chance for him,” Sugic said.

“Football is not an individual sport and I’m glad we had team chemistry today. We are still top of the table and that’s all that matters,” he added.

The SPL will take a two-week international break before resuming in April. The Jaguars will play Young Lions at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday (Apr 2) at 5.30pm, looking to strengthen their position at the top. Geylang will host fierce rivals Tampines Rovers at Our Tampines Hub in the Eastern derby in what could be a feisty encounter on the same day and time.

Writer’s Assessment

Geylang’s drastically revamped squad raised a few eyebrows before the season began, with many fans remaining sceptical about their chances. Seven of the 11 starting players yesterday were new additions to the team. Foreign players Sime Zuzul and Vincent Bezecourt will be key in their push for an AFC-Cup berth this campaign, after a disappointing sixth-place finish last season.

Setting up in a 4-4-2 base formation, Noor Ali seems to have found balance in attack and defence. With well-drilled attacking patterns including underlapping fullbacks to create chances, Geylang are not as reliant on individual quality to bail them out unlike last season. With two compact blocks of four off the ball, opposition teams are forced to be innovative to breach the Eagles in their defensive phase.

Japanese midfield general Takahiro Tezuka has settled in brilliantly for the Eagles since signing from Albirex. The 23-year-old’s ability to dictate play from midfield fills the void left by Barry Maguire, now playing for FC Den Bosch in Netherlands’ Eerste Divisie. Making smart decisions under pressure and spraying accurate passes on transitions, Tezuka could prove to be one of the signings of the season.

Having already upset the reigning SPL champions, expect Geylang to go from strength to strength as they push for a top-four finish with this new crop of players.

AIA Singapore Premier League 2022

Other Matchweek 4 Results

Tampines Rovers 7-1 GHougang United Fri, 18 Mar 2022, Our Tampines Hub

Balestier Khalsa 4-3 Young Lions Sat, 19 Mar 2022, Toa Payoh Stadium

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