The Ultras Eagles, fan group of Geylang International, sang the praises of Zaiful Nizam as he single-handedly salvaged a point against Albirex Niigata in a Singapore Premier League encounter on Tuesday night (April 5).
But Zaiful's night got on the wrong note in the 7th minute when an Albirex Niigata's shot was deflected into goal via Abdil Qaiyyim.
Takahiro Tezuka, in the attempt of playing the ball out of defence, misplaced his pass to Albirex Niigata marksman Tandanari Lee. Lee found Tatsuya Sambongi who was running towards goal in the box, and the latter slid the ball off Abdil's foot and past a diving Zaiful.
Geylang International in past seasons would not have been able to recover from this setback. But not this Eagles squad who have pulled no punches when cornered by their opponents.
What ensued was a moment of individual brilliance from Šime Žužul who brought the home fans to their feet in the 31st minute.
Receiving the ball in Albirex Niigata's half from Abdil, Žužul who was tightly marked by three White Swans defenders, escaped their attention with his nifty footwork and close ball control. Once he had sight at goal just outside the box, he finished off his mazy move by slotting beyond the reach of Albirex goalie Takahiro Koga.
Just as the Eagles fans were still savouring Žužul's magical moment, Albirex had their noses in front once more in the 34th minute, courtesy of another slight deflection from Abdil. From a short corner, winger Masahiro Sugita took a few touches around the edge of the box before unleashing the ball in the far right corner of Geylang International's goal.
This setback only rallied the Eagles team to push for an equaliser before the half drew to a close. Their never-say-die spirit was rewarded in the 43rd minute with a headed goal from Hazzuwan Halim.
Having found space in the White Swans' half, Reo Sakuma lofted a ball towards Fadli Kamis who had to battle an aerial challenge from an Albirex Niigata defender. Having risen the highest over his opponent, he directed the ball to Hazzuwan who timed his header perfectly into the Albirex's net.
Hazzuwan's second league goal of the season capped a creditable first-half performance for the Eagles.
However, a moment of recklessness on the hour mark threatened to undo the solid performance displayed by the home team. In the heat of the moment, Faizal Roslan smacked the back of the head of Nicky Melvin Singh. This offence gave the referee little choice but to send Faizal to the dressing room.
For the second consecutive game, Geylang International found themselves a man down and had to play the remaining half with 10 men. The Geylang supporters led by the Ultras Eagles feared the worst with the recent derby defeat still fresh in their minds.
The Eagles quickly re-organised themselves and went into a defensive shell for the rest of the second half. Despite Abdil coming off with an injury six minutes from time, the home team defended stoutly and Albirex Niigata struggled to find that elusive winner.
Geylang International had their moment to snatch an unlikely win deep into injury time. From a set-piece routine, the ball found the head of Sakuma in the six-yard box but he could only direct the ball wide. Many in the ground thought that that attempt would have been the winner.
There was no resting of the laurels for the Eagles as the White Swans made two late attempts in Geylang's six yard box via Lee and Kan Kobayashi. Thankfully, Zaiful stayed focus till the end and made outstanding reflex saves to thwart those chances.
With another hard-earned draw in the locker, Geylang International head into the weekend encounter with Balestier Khalsa in high morale. The time is now to climb up the league table.
Man of the match: Zaiful Nizam - The Geylang captain deserves his MoM award for the second game running. Playing with 10 men, he had to face a barrage of shots in a majority of the second half. His quick thinking and reflex saves in the dying seconds of the game rescued his team from a certain defeat.