Tampines Rovers got their S.League title defence up and running on Friday evening after claiming a 1-0 win over Home United in the season opener.
The game, which also doubled up as the annual Charity Shield encounter between the S.League and Singapore Cup champions, was decided in the 47th minute thanks to a clinical strike from Miljan Mrdakovic.
To make matters worse for Home, they finished the game with ten men after Qiu Li was sent off nine minutes from time for violent behaviour.
However, there were plenty of positives for Protectors coach Lee Lim-saeng to take, including the fact that his side were dominant for significant portions of the game and look genuine challengers this season.
One player who is likely to be key to their fortunes again in 2014 will be playmaker Lee Kwan-woo, last season’s Player of the Year, who took no time to pick up where he left off.
Eight minutes into Friday’s game, he lined up a 30-yard freekick and drilled in a piledriver that drew a flying save from Hyrulnizam Juma’at, who recovered well to keep out Ismail Yunos’ follow-up effort from point-blank range.
Tampines had a chance of their own in the 17th minute when Shahdan Sulaiman swung a dangerous corner to the near post; Norihiro Kawakami meeting it with a looping header that called Shahril Jantan into action.
But with Lee pulling strings from the middle of the park, Home began to dictate proceedings but they were unable to carve out a clear-cut scoring chance.
Qiu was next to threaten the Stags goal five minutes after the half-hour mark when he played a lovely one-two with Lee before drilling in a shot from the edge of the box, but it was straight at Hyrulnizam despite having plenty of venom.
Nonetheless, for all their first-half dominance, the Protectors found themselves behind two minutes after the break.
There appeared to be little danger when Roberto Martinez hoofed a speculative ball into the box, but Mrdakovic did well to bring the ball under control with his first touch, before shielding it and firing past Shahril on the turn.
A minute after the hour mark, the Stags had an excellent chance to double their lead when Home’s failure to clear their lines saw the ball fall to Aleksandar Duric six yards out, but he could only screw his shot wide from an acute angle.
Aware that Tampines were fast gaining the ascendancy, the Protectors began to play with more urgency and looked certain to equalise in the 72nd minute following a lovely passing move.
Receiving the ball outside the area, Qiu laid it off to Lee, who waited just long enough before chipping a brilliant pass through to Yasir Hanapi, only for the winger to blaze over from four yards with only Hyrulnizam to beat.
The Tampines goalkeeper was called into action again three minutes later but was once again equal to the task, coming off his line and smothering a dangerous low cross from Ismail before one of the opposition forwards could pounce.
However, Home’s hopes of mounting a comeback were dealt a huge blow in the 81st minute when Qiu received a straight red for kicking out at Anaz Hadee, after both players had tangled with one another down the touchline.
Still, there was one final chance for the Protectors to force the draw in the 84th minute when Lee swung a teasing freekick into the box to pick out Ismail’s darting run, but the defender was just unable to turn the ball towards goal.
In the end, Home only had themselves to blame for their failure to make the most of their dominance, as the defending champions held on for the first three points, as well as the first piece of silverware, of 2014.
Tampines Rovers: Hyrulnizam Juma’at, Kunihiro Yamashita, Fahrudin Mustafic, Norihiro Kawakami, Imran Sahib, Shahdan Sulaiman, Luis Closa, Shaiful Esah (Anaz Hadee 67’), Roberto Martinez, Miljan Mrdakovic (Noh Alam Shah 76’), Aleksandar Duric (Jamil Ali 81’).
Home United: Shahril Jantan, Ismail Yunos, Song In-young (Syahiran Miswan 72’), Sirina Camara, Juma’at Jantan, Izzdin Shafiq (Fazli Ayob 89′), Kwon Da-kyung, Yasir Hanapi, Lee Kwan-woo, Qiu Li, Bruno Castanheira (Ahmed Fahmie 69’).