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 By Jason Dasey

Jermaine Pennant passes AFC test as Tampines Rovers advance

The occasion may have lacked the prestige of the 2007 UEFA Champions League final when he shone for Liverpool against AC Milan at the Athens Olympic Stadium, but it was another big stage on which Jermaine Pennant simply needed to deliver.

The imposing Singapore Sports Hub was the setting for Tampines Rovers' fight for survival in the AFC Cup. Fail to beat Malaysian arch rivals Selangor in their final Group E match and the five-time S.League champions would suffer an embarrassing early elimination.

Pennant is 33 now, half a dozen years past his best, and struggling with a hamstring injury. And yet, the former England under-21 star delivered an influential performance to help Tampines win 1-0 and advance to the Round of 16 of the regional competition.

Pennant was always going to be a marked man and it took only 78 seconds for him to be fouled for the first time, with R. Gopinathan the culprit.

The resulting free kick bounced off the wall for a corner, with Pennant delivering the high quality kind of delivery honed over 17 years of Premier League football and repeatedly produced during the match.

On a pitch much larger than Tampines' Jurong West Stadium home, Pennant started wide on the right, in preference to the free role he's sometimes adopted in the S.League.

He can longer leave defenders for dead with sheer pace as he did as a teenager more than a decade and a half ago. But he did neatly skip inside Andik and into the box in the eighth minute before being forced over the byline by Mohd Raimi.

As the latecomers streamed into the Singapore National Stadium after the early 7pm kickoff, Pennant rolled back the years in the 27th minute with a 50-metre run from deep within his own penalty box.

Three minutes later, he was left clutching his head and staggering towards the sideline after a colourful challenge, with legs and elbows flying, that earned Raimi a yellow card.

Tampines winger Jermaine Pennant
Pennant, right, was a hard worker on both sides of the ball against Selangor on Tuesday night.

And yet, barely 60 seconds later, Pennant had an important hand in the goal that put Tampines ahead. His sweetly stroked pass from the right found Billy Mehmet in the box. The big striker expertly laid the ball off to Yasir Hanapi whose first-time, left-footed shot curled past Khairul Azhan Khalid.

In the shadows of half-time, Pennant dispossessed Gopi in a dangerous position before Izwan Mahbud produced a brilliant save from a Mauro Olivi free kick to preserve their lead.

Pennant's close understanding with former Perth Glory front man Mehmet was a trademark of Tampines' evening.

In the 62nd minute, after being fed by Noh Rahman from the middle, Pennant embarked on a penetrating run down the right, exchanged passes with Mehmet in the box, before forcing the corner.

Two minutes later, Pennant's pass from deep again connected with Mehmet in the area, but the one-time Ireland U21 representative wasn't able to fire off his shot as Tampines pushed for a second goal during a period of successive corners.

As captain Mustafic Fahrudin did an expert job in keeping Selangor's Liberian striker Patrick Wleh quiet, Pennant dropped deeper and more centrally later in the second half to offer his assured presence in possession.

He won a scrap for the ball with Azrif Nasrulhaq in 75th minute before sending ex-Australia international Robbie Cornthwaite in circles a minute later.

Arsenal in Singapore
Pennant's former club Arsenal won the Barclays Asia Trophy at the same venue 10 months ago.

Pennant was given a well-deserved early mark, walking gingerly off in the 80th minute, as coach V. Sundramoorthy brought on defender Ismadi Mukhtar to help see the game out. That was despite a late red card to Mehmet and a stunning overhead shot from Wleh in added time that was only narrowly wide.

Just 10 months earlier at the Singapore National Stadium, Pennant's former club Arsenal lifted the Barclays Asia Trophy after beating Everton 3-1 in the final.

Pennant's years under Arsene Wenger must seem like half a lifetime ago, but in terms of touch, passing and vision he remains a player who stands out from the rest at this level.

The one-time bad boy can feel satisfied with his mature contributions in front of 11,875 fans that helped much scrutinised Tampines Rovers book a place in the Round of 16 away to Mohun Bagan of India on May 24.

Jason Dasey is ESPN FC Senior Editor in Singapore. Formerly Asian editor of FourFourTwo, he was also a CNN and BBC broadcaster. Twitter: @JasonDasey.

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