Hiroyoshi Kamata and Shuhei Hoshino scored late in each half to give the leaders a 2-0 lead, but Hougang managed to pull one back on the stroke of full-time through substitute Amir Zalani and almost found an equaliser right at the death.
Hougang Caretaker Head Coach Clement Teo started the game with some bold selection choices as he handed Syaqir Sulaiman his first appearance since he rejoined the club in the mid-season transfer window, while opting to start 20-year-old Syukri Bashir as the lone striker.
His approach seemed to be vindicated as the Cheetahs put up a strong first half-hour, limiting Albirex’s inroads into their attacking third and going close on two occasions.
They could have scored after just five minutes when Adam Mitter squared Fabian Kwok’s free-kick across goal, but Justin Hui’s resulting shot went straight into Albirex goalkeeper Yohsuke Nozawa’s grateful arms.
Iqbal Hussain then fired wide from range on 19 minutes after taking down Jordan Vestering’s crossfield pass.
Albirex were oddly sub-par with a number of misplaced passes and their first shot of the night only came two minutes before the half-hour mark, with Daiki Asaoka’s 35-yard effort forcing Hougang custodian Khairulhin Khalid into action.
Hougang then spurned an excellent opportunity to go ahead in the 32nd minute, with Iqbal firing a free-kick over from the edge of the box after an Albirex player was adjudged to have handled the ball.
They were made to pay for their profligacy – just like on several occasions this season – as the visitors broke the deadlock six minutes later.
Kamata benefited from Ryujiro Yamanaka’s left-wing cross to produce a volley that spun home, despite Khairulhin’s best efforts to keep it out.
Going into the break 1-0 down, Hougang returned for the second half with renewed vigour and almost levelled matters on 56 minutes.
Iqbal’s superb ball over the top picked out Syukri, who could not get a clean touch with just Nozawa to beat as the latter managed to snuff out the danger.
Albirex could have doubled their lead a minute later when Captain Wataru Murofushi was barged down by Ashrul Syafeeq in the area.
The midfielder’s spot-kick looked destined for the bottom right corner, but Khairulhin dived the right way to repel the effort and earned the applause of the Hougang HOOLs present at the stadium.
Khairulhin continued to keep Albirex at bay, denying substitute Adam Swandi in a one-on-one opportunity on 72 minutes.
At the other end, Hougang pushed hard for an equaliser but the Albirex defence held firm, even though key centre-back Kaishu Yamazaki was carried off and replaced by Kazuki Sumiishi midway through the second half.
Iqbal fired wide another free-kick from the edge of the area on 73 minutes, before Mitter headed Captain Nurhilmi Jasni’s free-kick straight at Nozawa four minutes later.
Albirex seemingly wrapped up the game on 79 minutes when Adam followed up on his own saved shot to square for Hoshino to tap into an empty net for his league-leading 14th goal of the season.
It would have been game over had Taku Morinaga’s 25-yard shot not crashed off the right-hand post minutes later and that let-off gave Hougang a glimmer of hope.
That turned into an onslaught when Amir’s snapshot on 89 minutes took a wicked deflection and bounced into the goal to halve the deficit.
The Cheetahs kept pushing in the dying stages and went agonisingly close to an equaliser five minutes into injury time.
Ashrul knocked on Muhaimin Suhaimi’s inswinging cross into the area, but Nurhilmi headed straight at Nozawa from just three yards out, much to his team’s anguish.
Albirex would hang on for the valuable victory, which put them 14 points clear of second-placed Tampines Rovers FC. Meanwhile, Hougang stay rooted to the bottom, six points adrift of eight-placed Young Lions.
Hougang will go away to face Geylang International FC on Saturday, while Albirex host Warriors 24 hours later.
WHAT THEY SAID
Hougang Caretaker Coach Clement Teo: “If I tell you I’m not disappointed tonight, I’m a liar right? We could have equalised, but the last hit of the night went directly to their goalkeeper – what can I say?
“Credit to the boys – they are now believing that they can be as good as anyone, you saw the first 30 minutes where we were going at them and creating chances. After that, everyone started looking at the ball and that’s when the problems started.
“But everyone worked their socks off, including Syukri . He’s not experienced enough, but you can see the making of a good striker – holding up play and going in for challenges. What more can I ask from a young boy? We are sad tonight, but I’m definitely proud of them. As long as everyone keep the belief, we will definitely move forward.”
Albirex Head Coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga: “I can say I’m a bit relieved because we lost here last year and we knew this is a difficult ground for us. The players were not used to the pitch conditions, but I made some adjustments and we played better after that.
“The players showed tremendous spirit after seeing the fight Japan put in during the FIFA World Cup and they were motivated to show it today. The priority is to get three points today and we got it.
“Kaishu got a knock on the area on his knee and he needs to be sent to hospital. Although we conceded one in the last 20 minutes with his replacement, we held on and it serves as a good experience for the future matches (without him).”
Hougang: Khairulhin Khalid (GK), Nazrul Nazari (Ashrul Syafeeq 44’), Fabian Kwok, Adam Mitter, Jordan Vestering, Syaqir Sulaiman, Nurhilmi Jasni (C), Iqbal Hussain, Justin Hui (Amir Zalani 70’), Antoine Viterale (Muhaimin Suhaimi 61’), Syukri Bashir.
Unused subs: Zulfairuuz Rudy (GK), Fareez Farhan, Jordan Chan, Stanely Ng.
Albirex: Yohsuke Nozawa (GK), Riku Moriyasu, Shuhei Sasahara, Kaishu Yamazaki (Kazuki Sumiishi 67’), Kenya Takahashi, Hiroyoshi Kamata, Daiki Asaoka, Wataru Murofushi (C), Ryujiro Yamanaka (Adam Swandi 51’), Taku Morinaga (Ryutaro Shibanoki 90’+5), Shuhei Hoshino.
Unused subs: Shahul Rayyan (GK), Taiki Itsukaichi (GK), Kodai Sumikawa, Ryuji Yamauchi.
Photo Credit: Football Association of Singapore