Hougang United upset the odds for the third consecutive game, this time beating reigning S.League champions Albirex Niigata (S) 2-1 on Monday evening at Hougang Stadium.
This win followed the 1-0 and 3-2 triumphs over AFC Cup ASEAN finalists Ceres-Negros and Home United respectively.
The result against the White Swans was all the more remarkable after Hougang chose to rest several key players, including vice-captain Azhar Sairudin and 2015 S.League Player of the Year Fumiya Kogure.
In their place came four Prime League players, including former Young Lions player Gareth Low and Antoine Viterale, as well as Pablo Rodriguez, who failed to play any part in Hougang’s last six games.
“When we put out a reserve side, everyone said we stood no chance, we were going to get whipped,” a delighted Aw said after the game.
“But it was beyond that, we needed to protect our players … I needed the players to be fresh.
“The young boys handled themselves very well today. We knew we had a chance, nothing is impossible.”
Aw’s decision to field several reserves initially looked to have backfired, when Albirex grabbed the lead in the ninth minute.
Hougang were penalised for an infringement on Ryota Nakai in the box and the latter duly converted the resulting penalty to make it 1-0.
However, the Cheetahs showed they were up for the fight, with Fairoz Hassan’s volley coming off the bar in the 11th minute while Rodriguez saw his header tipped over the bar by Yosuke Nozawa in the 24th minute.
The hosts finally grabbed a deserved equaliser in the 26th minute, as Rodriguez met Zulfahmi Arifin’s corner with a firm header to score his first goal for the Cheetahs.
After the break, Hougang then took a surprise lead, albeit in a fortuitous manner.
Naofumi Tanaka and Rui Kumada suffered a defensive mix-up in the box and failed to clear Gareth Low’s long cross, allowing a lurking Fairoz to slot home his first goal since July 13, 2015.
The Cheetahs managed to hold on resolutely thereafter, although Ridhuan Barudin had to deny Shoichiro Sakamoto on two occasions.
“It was a tough last 10 minutes, we were on the rocks actually, they were coming but thankfully we held on,” Aw said.
“The spirit of the boys to keep fighting was evident tonight.”
Albirex coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga was sombre after the match, understandably since it was a second consecutive defeat following a previously unbeaten season. Albirex lost their first game of the year in their last match after a 2-0 defeat by Home United.
The Japanese believed this was not beneficial to the players’ morale but added he will be looking to help them regain their confidence as they continued their pursuit of silverware.
“Of course it’s not good for my players’ morale after a second loss,” Yoshinaga said.
“But instead of dwelling on the loss, we have to analyse why we lost this match, what we need to improve on so that we can play better for the next game.
We made some changes after our loss in the last game … so there are changes to the team in this match (and) there was some mistakes during these games due to the changes.”