Khairul Amri brace inspires Tampines Rovers to AFC Cup win vs. Felda
Khairul Amri came off the bench and netted a clinical four-minute brace to hand S.League giants Tampines Rovers a 3-1 win over Felda United of Malaysia, keeping alive their faint hopes of qualifying for the AFC Cup knockout round.
In Wednesday's engaging encounter at the Tun Abdul Razak Stadium in Jengka, the Stags had edged ahead through Ivan Dzoni's 29th-minute opener, only for Norshahrul Idlan Talaha to equalise for Felda six minutes after the restart.
Then, barely minutes after coming off the bench, Amri struck with a terrific volley to restore the visitors' lead before netting again three minutes later to secure a much-needed win for his side.
The result moves them up to third in Group G on six points, two behind leaders Ceres-Negros and second-placed Ha Noi.
Tampines will still need to beat Ceres in two weeks' time to stand any chance progressing to the knockout stage. But at least they managed to stay in the hunt right till the end following their spirited win on Wednesday.
Their recent form may have included four defeats in five matches, including 5-0 and 4-0 thrashings at the hands of Ceres and Ha Noi respectively. However, the Stags did halt their alarming run with a 4-0 league triumph over Geylang International in their previous S.League outing.
They showed the greater initiative in the early stages and first threatened in the 11th minute. Son Yong-chan flicked Shahdan Sulaiman's corner into the danger zone, but none of his teammates had read his intentions.
Yet, it looked as though it was going to be Felda to draw first blood in the 23rd minute when Norshahrul raced through onto Zah Rahan Krangar's through-pass. He had plenty of the goal to aim for, only to be brilliantly denied by Jufri Taha's last-ditch block.
Just seven minutes later, the deadlock was broken when a poor decision by Felda keeper Farizal Harun to pass the ball to Mootaz Jounaidi immediately put the Lebanon international under pressure.
Showing great determination, Yasir Hanapi won possession for the visitors being lofting a cross to an unmarked Dzoni. The Croatian got enough purchase on his shot to guide it home.
Felda were also in desperate need of a win, and attempted to muster a comeback, with Norshahrul looking particularly dangerous.
It was indeed the Malaysia national forward who levelled the scores for the hosts in the 51st minute, although he was aided by some hesitant defending from the opposition.
Failing to deal with a long throw by Wan Amirul Afiq, the Tampines backline allowed four Felda players to touch the ball inside the area. It eventually fell for Norshahrul to clinically fire past Izwan at the near post from the tightest of angles.
Aware that his side had to find a winner from somewhere if they were to keep their hopes alive, Stags' coach Jurgen Raab introduced Amri in the 65th minute for his first game since returning from injury.
Three minutes later, the 32-year-old made an instant impact as he made an excellent run in behind the defence. He met Jufri's searching 40-yard pass with a brilliant first-time strike into the bottom corner.
The hosts did come close to equalising again in the 71st minute when Lucas Cano was picked out in a promising position by Zah Rahan Krangar. His low shot took a wicked deflection and wrong-footed Izwan, although the latter recovered in time to stop the ball from crossing the line.
It proved to be a pivotal moment in the game as, less than a minute later, Amri struck again. He spread the ball out right to Ryutaro Megumi before darting inside the area to meet his Japanese teammate's return cross, making no mistake.
By now, they knew the result was effectively in the bag. But, to Tampines' credit, they continued to show attacking intent and were extremely keen on helping Amri complete his hat trick.
The hat trick didn't come, but few could deny the influence the talismanic Amri had on the result as the Stags continue to dream of a place in the AFC Cup knockout round.
Felda United: Farizal Harun, Wan Amirul Afiq, Norfazly Alias, Mootaz Jounaidi, Alif Yusof, Wan Zack Haikal (Shukor Adan 82'), Stuart Wark, Zah Rahan Krangar, Hadin Azman (Fakrul Aiman Sidid 46'), Norshahrul Idlan Talaha, Lucas Cano
Tampines Rovers: Izwan Mahbud, Jufri Taha, Fahrudin Mustafic, Daniel Bennett, Shakir Hamzah, Son Yong-chan, Fazli Ayob (Ismadi Mukhtar 90'), Shahdan Sulaiman, Ryutaro Megumi, Ivan Dzoni (Khairul Amri 65'), Yasir Hanapi
Gabriel Tan is a TV and radio pundit who writes for ESPN FC and The New Paper on Southeast Asian football. Twitter: @gabetan13.