Tampines Rovers FC profited from an Illyas Lee own goal to prevail 1-0 over Hougang United FC in a tight Great Eastern-Hyundai Singapore Premier League (SPL) affair at Our Tampines Hub on Sunday evening.
The result meant Tampines extended their lead over third-placed Home United FC to three points, with four games left to play.
Meanwhile, Hougang remained stranded at the bottom, eight points adrift of eighth-placed Geylang International FC, with a game in hand.
The pre-match build-up was focused on the return of Fazrul Nawaz to face his parent club, but the Cheetahs’ loan signing was not included in the match-day squad as he failed to recover from an injury.
Mid-season signing Chang Jo-yoon was given his first start in Hougang colours, but the South Korean endured a tough first 45 minutes with no real support from his fellow attackers.
Tampines were largely in control of proceedings and it was no surprise that they opened the scoring after just 12 minutes.
Striding on to Yasir Hanapi’s gorgeous outside-foot pass, Irwan Shah held off his marker on the left byline before producing a low cross. In an attempt to cut it out, Hougang centre-back Lee only managed to poke it beyond his goalkeeper Zulfairuuz Rudy.
The Stags had further chances to double the lead before half-time, but were let down by a combination of profligacy and good goalkeeping.
Amirul Adli lashed wide from ten yards after being teed up by Ryutaro Megumi on 18 minutes, before Zulfadhmi Suzliman’s snapshot from just outside the area was tipped around the post by Zulfairuuz three minutes later.
Adli forced another save from Zulfairuuz from a tight angle on 25 minutes, before Yasir fired a wild shot over from just inside the area in the 40th minute.
Hougang returned for the second half with much vigour and carved out a few good chances to score.
First, Lee headed well off target from Fareez Farhan’s free kick on 54 minutes, while captain Iqbal Hussain lashed wide from 25 yards after being teed up by Syahiran Miswan five minutes later.
Their best chance of the evening came in the 60th minute when Iqbal released substitute Amir Zalani with a superb lofted pass, but the latter wastefully lashed wide of the right-hand post after cutting inside Irfan Najeeb in the area.
Tampines were not as dominant as in the first half, but still went agonisingly close to finding the second goal on 69 minutes.
Put through by captain Fahrudin Mustafic’s through ball, Shameer Aziq produced a close-range shot that evaded Zulfairuuz but not Lee, who managed to hack the ball off the line.
Hougang threw the proverbial kitchen sink in the dying stages of the game, but an equaliser proved to be elusive.
Tampines custodian Syazwan Buhari did well to tip Iqbal’s spectacular volley around the post on 79 minutes, before denying substitute Nurhilmi Jasni from a tight angle four minutes later.
Zulfairuuz could have been the unlikely Cheetahs hero deep into injury time when he went up for a late corner kick, but his shot from just outside the area sailed inches wide of the left-hand post.
Tampines Head Coach Juergen Raab: “It’s a totally deserved victory… We created so many chances in the first half but our problem was the final pass. If it was Albirex (Niigata FC (S)), they would have been 3-0 or 4-0 up. In the second half, the opponents have nothing to lose so they played the long ball and four strikers late in the game – that’s normal.
“Our problem is consistency… It’s important that we finish second. I’ve said this before – after Albirex ran away with the title, our target is second and we can achieve it with consistency.”
Hougang Caretaker Head Coach Clement Teo: “No doubt, we were very slack in the first half. We had a lot of injuries and had to field an Under-23 player (Asraf Zahid) at left back – I was feeling sad for him (to be substituted off in the first half) and we were trying to encourage him in the dressing room.
“Also, we missed Fazrul’s leadership but I felt we had able replacements. It was tough for Chang tonight against Daniel (Bennett) and Mustafic. I’m happy that the players went out fighting in the second half and I thought Tampines were lucky towards the last 15 minutes… I’m sad for the boys.”
Tampines: Syazwan Buhari (GK), Irfan Najeeb (Shameer Aziq 67’), Fahrudin Mustafic (C), Daniel Bennett, Irwan Shah, Amirul Adli, Jordan Webb, Ryutaro Megumi, Yasir Hanapi, Zulfadhmi Suzliman (Hafiz Sujad 76’), Khairul Amri (Taufik Suparno 86’).
Unused subs: Hariz Farid (GK), Madhu Mohana, Shah Shahiran, Faizal Raffi.
Hougang: Zulfairuuz Rudy (GK), Muhaimin Suhaimi, Illyas Lee, Ashrul Syafeeq, Asraf Zahid (Amir Zalani 41’), Syahiran Miswan, Antoine Viterale, Iqbal Hussain (C), Justin Hui (Nurhilmi Jasni 72’), Fareez Farhan (Syukri Bashir 89’), Chang Jo Yoon.
Unused subs: Ridhuan Barudin (GK), Shahfiq Ghani, Syaqir Sulaiman, Nikesh Singh Sidhu.