BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
Despite finally being allowed to play at their home ground in the AFC Cup and needing a win to push for the top spot in their group, Felda United fell to a 3-1 defeat to Singapore's Tampines Rovers in their Group G AFC Cup match on Wednesday. Khairul Amri Kamal became the Stags' hero in the match, scoring a brace within eight minutes of his introduction as a second-half substitute.
The homeside went into the match from the second place in the group with five points, needing all three points in order to have a chance of finishing the group stage in pole position and advancing to the next stage. Furthermore, third-placed Ceres-Negros FC were hot on their heels with five points as well, but with a smaller goal difference. The last-placed visitors too still had a mathematical chance, with three points. In first place was Ha Noi FC on eight points, who took on Ceres in the other Group G match.
At long last, the Fighters were finally allowed by the AFC to play their home game in the competition at their actual home ground, the Tun Abdul Razak Stadium, in rural Jengka, Pahang, having played their previous two home matches at the Shah Alam Stadium, a venue that is closer to the facilities required by the confederation for continental matches.
Malaysia international Norshahrul Idlan Talaha could have given Felda the lead in the 22nd minute after he was released by Zah Rahan Krangar's through ball, but a last-ditch tackle by a defender let Tampines off the hook.
It was the visitors who drew first blood however, thanks to some nonsensical defending by Lebanese centre back Mootaz Jounaidi. He tried dribbling near his own penalty area, which only ended in him losing possession to Yasir Hanapi. Yasir then squared the ball towards Ivan Džoni, and the Croatian stabbed the ball home past Felda goalkeeper Farizal Harun for the first goal of the match.
Although playing on the artifical pitch of the Tun Abdul Razak Stadium, Bhaskaran Sathianathan's men resorted to playing long balls, perhaps due to the fact that their opponents are also used to playing on plastic turf, at their home ground the Jalan Besar Stadium. Unfortunately for the Fighters, their long deliveries often went astray.
Five minutes from the halftime whistle, Norshahrul went down in the Tampines penalty box after he was seemingly tackled by defender Fazli Ayob. But instead of a penalty, the referee gave a freekick to the Stags and booked the forward for simulation. Replay showed that the referee had made the right decision.
At halftime, the first half ended with the Stags leading the Fighters 1-0.
Sathianathan made a change at the start of the second half, bringing on Fazrul Hazli Kadri for winger Hadin Azman.
The home side finally found the equaliser in the 51st minute. A goalmouth melee resulted in the ball in Norshahrul's possession in the Tampines box, and the forward made a brilliant swift outside turn before rifling in a shot from a tight angle. The shot went in between Tampines goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud and the near post.
Tampines manager Jürgen Raab then took off Dzoni for Khairul Amri Kamal in the 64th minute, and what a substitution he would prove to be.
Just four minutes later, the Singapore international scored. Amri was able to connect with a long ball from Tampines' own half with a volley, and the Stags were in front again.
The forward then doubled his tally and his team's lead, again four minutes later.
Shukor Adan then was brought on for Wan Zack Haikal in the 81st minute, but he only managed to receive a booking for a foul just two minutes into his appearance.
The match ended in a 3-1 win to Tampines, with the win providing a lifeline to their AFC Cup campaign and taking them to third, pipping Felda. Felda meanwhile now need to defeat Ha Noi in Vietnam in their last group match, in order to have a glimmer of hope for qualification.
Felda : Farizal (GK), Alif, Fazly, Mootaz, Wan Amirul, Wan Zack (Shukor 81'), Wark, Zah Rahan, Hadin (Fazrul 46'), Cano, Norshahrul.
Tampines : Izwan (GK), Jufri, Mustafic (C), Bennett, Yong Chan, Shahdan, Megumi, Shakir, Fazli (Ismadi 90+'), Yasir, Dzoni (Amri 64').