Much has been said about the lack of new blood in the Tampines Rovers team this season. After all, any team that replaces players as important as Khairul Amri and Qiu Li were to Tampines Rovers with a solitary Ahmad Latiff would be due (arguably justly) some criticism.
To compound the misery for the Stags' already muted support, former Singapore bad-boy Ahmad Latiff had a largely anonymous game in the advanced role ahead of Shahdan Sulaiman and Akihiro Nakamura.
However, perhaps the weakness in the above argument lies in the fact that it does not take into account players maturing, either in their roles in the first team, or making the step from the prime league. In the former, the Stags have Shukor Zailan, whose introduction changed the complexion of the game not only in allowing the hitherto subdued Shahdan to link up with Duric and Aliff Shafaein more effectively, but also with his vision and passing.
As icing on the cake, his thunderous volley gave the Tampines team a much needed boost. In the latter, Tampines brought on Taufiq Rahmat whose marauding runs forward as well as competent defending was a breath of fresh air in a game overshadowed by a reluctance to go forward.
On the subject of new blood, Etoile fielded a team which bore resemblance to last season's title winning team only in name. In a new kit, with a new manager and set of players, this isn't an Etoile team defending their double championship from last year. Much like age-level titles, this team are a new team assembled to defend a title they inherited.
Though comparisons will inevitably be made, a key feature of this Etoile team is definitely their organisation and teamwork. In the opening exchanges, they limited Tampines to long balls out of defence, while themselves finding space to work the ball down channels and into the box to exploit and exert their domineering physique. This Etoile team may not have the flair players of Mathias Verchave, Flavien Michellini or Frederic Mendy of the previous iteration, but with a team blend that can only get better, they must resemble realistic challengers / defenders of the title.
There is of course a caveat to Etoile's strength as mentioned above. Organisation and tactical awareness goes hand in hand with fitness, of which this latest version of Etoile seems suspect at best. In their pre-season friendly against Muang Thong of Thailand, the SLeague champions raced into a 2-0 lead within 20 minutes, and replicated that feat with their 10 minute penalty against Tampines. However, they capitulated in Thailand, eventually losing 2-4 to the Thais, and it was a familiar narrative as they lost control of the second half against Tampines despite being comfortably on top in the first.
Tampines did score only in the 85th and 89th minute, but that should not mask the fact that an Etoile team so dominant in the first half surrendered possession meekly in the second. A harmless ball into the box that would have been controlled and passed out of the Etoile backline in the first half was instead hurriedly booted to the commanding Benoit Croissant on the halfway line. It is perhaps damning that the only surprise with the final score was that Tampines took 40 minutes of the second half to make their tiring opponents pay.
Which was perhaps due in part to Steven Tan's introduction of Taufiq Rahmat for Zahid Ahmad and then Jamil Ali for Aliff Shafaein. As the Etoile team fatigued in the humid climes, the direct running of Taufiq and Jamil provided endless problems for the Frenchmen.
With essentially an unchanged side (bar Taufiq Rahmat) from the side that started the 2010's closing match against Balestier, and playing with a cohesion that was second nature that contrasted against Etoile's organisation that slowly ebbed away with their fitness on the night, Tampines went for the jugular for the first time in the game and were rewarded handsomely for it.
Tonight was a textbook game of two halves, each doing justice to the strengths and fallibility of two of the expected four challengers for the league title this season. If Tampines continue their growth and maturity while sharpening their attacking instincts; if Etoile overcome their apparent fitness gremlins in time not to lose too many points in the tropic humidity while strengthening their impressive organisation; there is no reason not to conclude that tonight's charity shield would have featured two sides that would push each other and themselves to the wire in the S League.
S League 2011 Charity Shield Result
Etoile FC 1( Maxime Belouet(Pen) 12') Tampines Rovers 2( Aleksandar Duric 85', Park Yo Seb 89')
Jalan Besar Stadium