Match Review: Eagles Throw a Spanner in Sailors' Title Run with 1-1 Draw
Geylang International stretched their unbeaten run to five matches after holding league leaders Lion City Sailors to a 1-1 draw at Our Tampines Hub on Saturday evening (July 16).
The result also dented the Sailors' title aspirations as they saw their lead cut to five points, with Albirex Niigata coming out tops against Balestier Khalsa on the same evening. Their lead at the summit can be reduced with White Swans possessing a game in hand.
The Eagles headed into this fixture as the league's in-form team with three victories on the trot. Confidence was reportedly sky-high in the Geylang camp.
That spirit was reflected in their strong showing during the first half with the men in green dictating play and hardly giving their star-studded opponents a sniff of the goal. First-half shots from Sailors players Kim Shin-wook, Song Ui-Young and Harris Harun were comfortably dealt by Zaiful Nizam.
With the defending champions still reeling from last weekend's draw against Hougang United, there was a sense that an upset was on the cards at the Eagles Nest.
The home team thought that they had drawn first blood when a strike from Hazzuwan Halim bulged the net in the 36th minute. A ball from the left sent in by Khairul Hairie was deflected into the path of Hazzuwan. The 28-year-old Singaporean striker made no mistake in bundling the ball across the line.
What ensued was a roller coaster of emotions among both sets of fans due to indecisive refereeing.
Initially flagged offside by the assistant referee, the home fans broke out into cheers when referee Hilmi Fuad awarded the goal to Geylang International. But in controversial fashion, the final say was left to Taufik Thana, who was the fourth official of the match. Hilmi had an extended conversation with Taufik on the touchline and decided to overturn his initial decision, much to the bafflement of the Eagles camp.
Hazzuwan seemed like a man on a mission after his goal was disallowed for offside - the second time in as many games that a goal was taken away from him in that manner.
Three minutes later, the nimble forward earned a penalty after being floored by the outstretched leg of Zulqarnaen Suzliman.
Geylang International penalty taker Sime Zuzul took his fourth spot kick of the season with aplomb and sent Lion City Sailors goalkeeper Hassan Sunny the wrong way. The Croatian hotshot took his goal tally in the league to eight.
With the game nearing half-time, the Eagles seemed to be heading into the dressing room with a precious one-goal lead. But the Sailors refused to throw in the towel and pegged the game level through a Shahdan Sulaiman strike.
Receiving a lay-off from his teammate Hafiz Nor, the right-footed midfielder struck the ball from range, which flew into goal via a deflection off Abdil Qaiyyim's head. Zaiful Nizam had no chance of keeping that ball out.
That equaliser gave the defending champions a lifeline and one would expect them to come out with all guns blazing after the break.
True enough, the Eagles defence had to withstand a heavy pressure by the Sailors in the early exchanges of the second half. They had their goalkeeper Zaiful to thank for, with an instance in the 51st minute seeing the veteran custodian parry a shot by Song to safety.
The mid-table squad also fashioned a couple of good chances as they searched to earn another scalp against their highly favoured opponents.
In the 64th minute, Huzaifah Aziz's trademark long throw found Zuzul in the box. The poacher wiggled past a couple of defenders in tight spaces, but found his shot firmly handled by Hassan.
Another glorious opportunity was presented to the Eagles four minutes later. Ahmad Syahir made a diagonal run across the attacking third and laid the ball to Hazzuwan who found space on the right of the penalty box. The livewire striker could not open his goal account as his strike was blocked by the Sailors goalie.
As the contest entered into its closing stages, Geylang International were content to see out the game with a point and ensured that their efforts of the night were duly rewarded.
The draw brought the Eagles' point tally to 17 and inched the club closer to the qualifying spot of the AFC Cup - currently held by Tanjong Pagar United who are on 25 points.
If the former giants could defy the odds in their forthcoming fixtures against their in-form rivals Hougang United and title chasers Albirex Niigata, reaching Asia's second-tier continental competition would not be a distant dream.
Man of the match: Hazzuwan Halim - The former Balestier Khalsa striker was unlucky not to be on the scoresheet with his goal being ruled for offside. He did not let the refereeing decision to dampen his spirit. Instead, it was turned into a strong motivating force as he quickly earned a penalty which gave Geylang International the lead. The 1.69m forward, who has four league goals to his name, continued to exert a threatening presence upfront throughout the second half.