Match Review: Eagles Clinch Fourth After Drawing White Swans 1-1
Geylang International pipped fierce rivals Hougang United to fourth after battling Singapore Premier League champions Albirex Niigata to a 1-1 draw in the final league match of the campaign at Our Tampines Hub on Friday evening (October 21).
With the Cheetahs moving one point in front of the Eagles following a 4-1 victory over Balestier Khalsa the night before, a draw against the White Swans - with the aid of a superior goal difference - was enough for the Tampines-based side to end the league campaign in fourth.
This is a remarkable achievement for Geylang International considering that the club had undergone a 11-game winless run and were languishing second from bottom earlier in the year.
Given the opportunity to attain the Eagles' joint-highest league finish since 2003, head coach Noor Ali would certainly want to play his best 11 against the newly minted league winners.
But with first-choice goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam still recovering from an ankle injury, Noor turned to Hafiz Ahmad to deputise between the sticks and handed his second start of the season.
Lacking match experience ahead of this contest, the 23-year-old could be forgiven for the lack of accuracy in his goal kicks and clearances during the early exchanges.
One also had to sympathise him for being thrown into the deep end to face the firing line of Golden Boot contender Kodai Tanaka, who needed four goals to overhaul the tally of leading marksman Boris Kopitovic.
Hafiz was up against Tanaka as early as the 4th minute when he attempted to punch an aerial ball away from the Japanese hotshot. But the young goalkeeper could not make a clean punch and the ball bounced off the head of his challenger and crept towards goal, only for his blushes to be spared by the last-ditch clearance of Takahiro Tezuka.
Chances were at a premium for the remaining first period, with both teams struggling to string their passes together.
The best Geylang International could muster was an effort by Sime Zuzul in the 11th minute when his shot from the edge of the box was aimed straight at opposing goalie Hyrulnizam Juma'at.
As for Albirex Niigata, their rare chance of taking the lead in the half came in the 37th minute when prodigal striker Ilhan Fandi rose the highest and connected a cross with his head towards goal. To the relief of the home side, the ball looped over the bar and nestled on top of the netting.
After a lacklustre first half in terms of goalmouth action, the White Swans turned the screws and rained shots on Hafiz's goal.
In particular from a corner on the hour mark, Tanaka sent his header crashing against the bar before a follow-up attempt by Keito Hariya was headed over for a goal kick.
A minute after that goalmouth frenzy, Hafiz managed to pull off a stupendous save when he denied Tanaka from point-blank range.
Against the run of play, the Eagles were presented with a glorious opportunity to put themselves in front in the 64th minute, courtesy of a foul by Shogo Toyomura on Vincent Bezecourt inside the box.
Sime Zuzul, who has not missed a spot-kick this season, coolly sent the keeper the wrong way and clocked his 18th league goal of the campaign, putting him joint-fifth in the goalscorer charts.
Not wanting to go down without a fight and have their post-match title celebrations ruined, the reigning champions levelled the game 10 minutes later when Tanaka was well-placed to head Masahiro Sugita's cross into the net.
The equaliser had put the home fans on the edge of their seats for the last 15 minutes as they watched their beloved team fight hard to hold onto their precious point and not let that fourth spot slip from their grasp.
Once the final whistle was blown, the celebrations into the night began for both sides - Albirex Niigata for winning the league title and Geylang International for achieving a respectable league finish.
Man of the match: Umar Akbar - The stocky midfielder, who modelled his play after France's N'Golo Kante, brought much energy on both ends of the pitch. His recovery of balls and winning of fouls had disrupted Albirex Niigata's fluid play and bought time for his teammates to take a breather and reorganise themselves.