Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Henan Construction 1 at Singapore Armed Forces 2 - AFC Champions League, Group G, Matchday 5 - April 13, 2010

After a week of relaxation in Kota Kinabalu, I returned to Singapore to visit friends and check out a meaningless game in the AFC Champions League. If you've followed the blog, you know about this tournament which emulates the UEFA Champions League with eight 4-team groups. For the second year running, the Singapore Armed Forces team had made it to the group stage, but they had yet to secure a win. Tonight they were hosting Henan Construction, a team from the Chinese Super League.

The game was played at Jalan Besar Stadium, shown above. It would be my third match watched here, making Jalan Besar my most visited soccer venue outside of Tokyo's National Stadium. Today's tickets were $10 (about $7 US) but once inside the stadium, you were prevented from moving to the other side. I had entered on Henan's side, so if I wanted to sit with the Singapore fans, I would have to exit the stadium and walk around outside - I guess they wanted to prevent the wanton violence that marks this competition. It was pretty silly but I didn't care where I sat. As it turned out, many fans made the same mistake and given that it was raining hard, they didn't want to make the trip outside, so we had a mixed crowd anyway.

The Game

The two teams were in Group G, along with Gamba Osaka and Suwon Bluewings. When play started, Henan had an outside shot of catching Gamba - they needed Suwon to win the other matchup tonight. But it was not to be; Gamba won 2-1 on an injury time goal and Henan was eliminated. SAF was already knocked out, so the game turned out to have no meaning at all in the big picture.

Croatia's Ivan Lovric heads at goal - it was saved by Henan's keeper Zeng Cheng

The rain had made the pitch wet and the first half was predictably dull and sloppy. Each team had maybe one chance and after a dreary 45 minutes, it was still 0-0. The rain stopped for halftime, but dutifully returned as the players made their way back to the field. I had low expectations for the second half, but Henan came out strong and had a couple of early chances. Their finished was poor though and the ball routinely sailed over the net.

Japanese Taisuke Akiyoshi readies a free kick for SAF

In the 64th minute, SAF had a free kick that appeared to be going wide when it was headed back into play by a Henan defender. A volley was pushed away by Henan keeper, right onto the boot of Singapore national team member Daniel Bennett who drove it home to give the home side a shock 1-0 lead. Henan wasted little time in coming back, finally showing some solid finishing as Yu Le slid home a cross to tie the game in the 71st minute. But the Singaporeans were not to be denied and 6 minutes later, Erwan Gunawan rose high to head home a corner kick and it was 2-1 for SAF.

Henan spent the rest of the match pushing forward but they couldn't break down the SAF defense, who were in prevent mode. When the whistle blew, the Singaporean fans rejected joyfully. A Singaporean team had finally won a group stage game in the AFC Champions League! It might not sound like much but it's big news here. Just a small step as the S League tries to gain respect in Asia.

Overall, this was a much better game than I expected. These teams played to a scoreless draw in their previous meeting and after the first half finished goalless and both teams were officially elminated, I thought we were due for a lackluster second half. But the players felt that pride was at stake, and although Henan was the better team technically, they had two weak defensive moments that cost them the match. It was good to see a historical result and will be worth following the tourney next year to see if a Singaporean team can challenge for a spot in the knockout portion.

Historic finish

Next Up

I'm flying back to Japan on Thursday and will watch the Tokyo Apache take on the Saitama Broncos in bj League action on Saturday. The game is being played at a new gym near where I live, so it's a must see. After that, I'll catch up on my F1 posts, and try to watch a minor league game or two. In May, I'm still hoping to get to the West Coast to see the Blue Jays visit Arizona but arrangements still need to be made. As always, updates here first!



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