Twice, the Lion City Sailors took the lead against Tampines Rovers in the first-leg of their 2023 Singapore Cup semi-final on Sunday (3 Dec) evening. 

Twice, however, the Sailors found themselves pegged back by a resilient Stags side, as both teams played out an entertaining 3-3 draw at Our Tampines Hub (OTH).

It was a result that Sailors Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković was far from pleased with, although he admitted his players were not at their physical best, owing to fatigue from having played a gruelling midweek Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) tie away against Bangkok United.

“It was not a good result. I expected more, especially after we took the lead twice,” reflected the Serb. “We had to control the game and try to go for another goal. We were not as aggressive, but maybe it’s due to fatigue.

“The positive from this game is how some of the guys performed, like Shawal Anuar and our captain (Hariss Harun). They played really well, so that’s the example I think all the players should follow.”

Indeed, it was Tampines who flew out of the blocks and opened the scoring after just three minutes through Joel Chew, who rifled the ball into the back of the net from just inside the box after the Sailors failed to clear their lines from a short corner routine.

But the home side’s lead lasted all of three minutes, as Shah Shahiran was robbed in his own penalty box by Sailors midfielder M. Anumanthan, who then calmly slotted the ball past Tampines goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari to level the score.

Ranko’s charges then took the lead in the 13th minute when centre-back Bailey Wright, making his first start for the Sailors after returning from injury, jumped highest at the back post to head home from Maxime Lestienne’s corner.

Given the pulsating, back-and-forth nature of the game, it did not take long for another twist in the tale to occur – this time, it was former Sailors man Faris Ramli who bundled the ball into the net after a scramble in the box following a corner.

Faris’ joy, however, was short-lived, as the referee ruled out the goal following a VAR check which showed that Tampines striker Boris Kopitović had handled the ball in the build-up.

But Faris did eventually get his goal just 12 minutes later. A long shot from Joel was palmed away by Sailors custodian Izwan Mahbud, and Faris reacted quickest to get to the rebound before curling the ball into the bottom corner from a tight angle.

Now with momentum on their side, Tampines almost took the lead in first-half stoppage time via a clinical counter-attack that ended with Saifullah Akbar firing Faris’ cut-back just wide of Izwan’s goal.

Saifullah came close again barely three minutes later, as his shot from the edge of the box took a series of deflections that almost creeped into the bottom corner, but Izwan managed to react in the nick of time to palm it away onto the post, before Bailey recovered to clear it out for a corner.

With Tampines in the ascendancy at the end of the half, Ranko rang the changes at the break to try and regain control of the game, as both Harith Kanadi and Lionel Tan came off for Shawal Anuar and Chris van Huizen.

And the changes paid dividends just three minutes into the second half, with Shawal deftly taking down Maxime’s lobbed through pass and coolly taking the ball past Syazwan, before tapping it into an empty net.

That was the third straight Singapore Cup game in which the Singapore international had scored after coming on as a second-half substitute.

Though Tampines boasted much of the possession thereafter, Shawal’s pace and direct style continued to be a thorn in their side. And the 32-year-old very nearly doubled his goal tally in the 62nd minute, as he latched onto an Adam Swandi through pass and rounded Syazwan, but before he could pull the trigger, Tampines defender Shuya Yamashita slid in to poke the ball away for a corner.

The Sailors, however, noticeably faded as the half wore on, and this ultimately proved costly in the 82nd minute as Boris ghosted into the box to divert Faris’ low cross into the net.

Tampines continued to put pressure on the Sailors backline in search of a winner, and they came close to finding it in the second minute of stoppage time, but Boris’ free-kick from just outside the box was well saved by Izwan.

The game eventually ended 3-3, leaving things finely-poised ahead of the second leg of the semi-final at the Bishan Stadium on Wednesday (6 Dec) night.

Appreciating the significance of that match – the Singapore Cup is the last opportunity for the Sailors to win silverware this season – Ranko declared that his side would do all they can to come out top in the second leg.

He said: “We’re going to rest, recover, and we’ll start again tomorrow. Our objective is clear – we want to go through to the final, that’s the main goal, and we’ll do everything we can to ensure that happens.”