Hougang United’s quest to finish third in the Great Eastern-Yeo’s S.League took a huge blow as they were held to a 1-1 home draw by second-from-bottom Balestier Khalsa at the Hougang Stadium on Saturday night.
The Cheetahs led through an early Stipe Plazibat strike, but the hosts paid the price for not finishing off their chances as they were eventually pegged back by Syafiq Zainal’s goal midway through the second half.
K Balagumaran’s side got off to the best possible start by scoring inside eight minutes.
From a quick breakaway after a Balestier free kick, Plazibat profited from Iqba Hussainl’s perfectly-weighted pass, skinned his marker Fadhil Noh before calmly slotting home into the bottom right corner from eight yards out.
Balestier struggled to find the cutting edge without three of their foreigners (Emir Lotinac, Niko Tokic and Miroslav Kristic) and hardly created any good openings in the first half.
The visitors suffered yet another injury setback as Fazli Ayob were stretchered off due to a suspected fractured ankle after colliding with Afiq Noor in the 44th minute.
Hougang have an excellent opportunity to double their lead on the stroke of half time when Iqbal went one-on-one with Balestier goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam via M. Anumanthan’s lofted pass, but the former’s cheeky lob came off the crossbar.
The home side has further chances after the break but failed to put them away. First Plazibat headed over from Fumiya Kogure’s cross, then Iqbal’s close-range header was denied by a quick reflex save from Zaiful.
Balestier started to get into the game more after the hour mark and eventually grabbed the equaliser in the 69th minute.
Cheetahs failed to clear their lines after a free kick, Syafiq broke free on the edge of the box before unleashing a fierce drive which Hougang custodian Khairulhin Khalid got a touch to, but failed to keep out.
Hougang threw bodies forward in the final 10 minutes to force a winner, but Balestier produced a superb rear-guard effort to deny any aerial balls that came into their area.
Plazibat had the opportunity to win it right at the death, but his 20-yard free kick flew just over the bar to the disappointment of the Hougang fans.
The game eventually ended all square, with Hougang losing further ground on third place. They are now eight points behind Tampines Rovers, who dropped to third after going down 1-0 to Brunei DPMM on the same night, and nine behind second-placed DPMM.
Hougang United head coach K Balagumaran: “When Iqbal missed that chance before half time, we were still confident of scoring more goals and getting the three points. But Balestier were playing more physical and intimidated our players; that worked for them.
“Our players were losing their cool and they did not do well for the equaliser. They should have cleared the second ball from the free kick, but didn’t do so. The ball fell to Syafiq and they did not close down on him fast enough.
“There was a bit of pressure on us because people was talking (about Hougang making to AFC Cup). The players feel that there’s a great chance and I will try to take this pressure off them for the next game.”
Balestier Khalsa head coach Marko Kraljevic: “We made a big mistake for the first goal. Ho Wai Loon was supposed to take the free kick from the right side, but everyone was out of position and I don’t know why.
“But I wasn’t worried at 1-0 down because Hougang didn’t give us much problems. I told them that they just need to cut off the mistakes in the second half and try to go behind them, which we did well.
“Two games in a row, we came from behind to get a point. That shows that this team has a lot of character and I’m really proud of them.”
Hougang United: Khairulhin Khalid (GK), Raihan Rahman, M.Anumanthan, Jozef Kaplan (C) (Nur Na’iim Ishak 86’), Fumiya Kogure (Samuel Benjamin 86’), Stipe Plazibat, Nazrul Nazari, Iqbal Hussain, Huzaifah Aziz (Faiz Salleh 79’), Nurhilmi Jasni, Afiq Noor
Balestier Khalsa: Zaiful Nizam (GK, C), Shah Hirul, Nurullah Hussein, Sheikh Abdul Hadi, Jamil Ali, Fazli Ayob (Danial Farhan Tan 45’), Fadhil Noh, Syafiq Zainal (Zulkhair Mustaffa 77’), Ho Wai Loon, Hazzuwan Halim, Sadin Smajovic (Syahfuddin Eska 90’)
Match report by: S.League Ryan Low
Match Photos courtesy by: Haiqal Tahir