Kenya Takahashi proved to be the scourge of Hougang United FC again as holders Albirex Niigata FC (S) edged the first leg of their RHB Singapore Cup first-round tie 1-0 at Hougang Stadium on Wednesday night.
The left-back’s 75th-minute free-kick was the difference between both sides in a Great Eastern-Hyundai Singapore Premier League (SPL) clash in early May and lightning struck twice, as the 23-year-old hit another dead-ball special to settle a tense clash.
These were the Great Eastern-Hyundai Singapore Premier League’s bottom and top sides facing off, but it was not the one-sided affair that many expected.
With Fabian Kwok serving a one-match suspension, Faiz Salleh was deployed as a makeshift centre-back for Hougang alongside the ever-present Illyas Lee.
The rearranged Cheetahs backline – with three Under-23 players in the mix – coped well in the first half-hour as they shut out the league’s leading marksman, Shuhei Hoshino.
Clement Teo’s charges even forced a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes from Albirex, but lacked the final pass to trouble goalkeeper Yohsuke Nozawa.
Albirex gradually woke up from their slumber towards the end of the first half and only a stunning point-blank save from Ridhuan Barudin prevented Hoshino from breaking the deadlock.
Two minutes later, Hoshino’s goal was disallowed for offside.
Hougang continued to compete after the break as Fareez Farhan lashed wide from the edge of the area after a superb solo run on 53 minutes, before Fazrul Nawaz’s shot from a tight angle was smothered by Nozawa five minutes later.
They were made to pay for their profligacy in the 74th minute as Albirex scored from a dubious free-kick decision.
Fazrul fell to the ground after a clash with Hoshino on the edge of his own penalty area, but the decision went Albirex’s way.
After some delay, Takahashi stepped up to deliver a stupendous free-kick – his fourth direct free-kick goal this season – over the Hougang defensive wall and past the stranded Ridhuan for the match winner.
Hougang’s frustrations continued two minutes later as Antoine Viterale’s header off Captain Nurhilmi Jasni’s corner appeared to clip the hand of an Albirex defender, only for referee G Letchman to dismiss the penalty appeals.
Fazrul then directed a header from substitute Shahfiq Ghani’s free-kick wide on 84 minutes, before Iqbal Hussain’s snapshot from the edge of the box was well held by Nozawa deep into injury time.
Albirex duly held on for the win as they take a slight advantage into the second leg, which will be played at Jurong East Stadium on Saturday evening.
Hougang Caretaker Head Coach Clement Teo: “Look… We had the same referee which we had at Jurong East (earlier in the season) who failed to send off the player (after an infringement in that game); it was the same player who scored both goals. The players are totally frustrated and I can understand that. It’s an infringement for us – not for them. It’s not ethical to talk about officials, but we cannot have an official making a mistake at our expense time and again.
“The players have given their best and you can see that positive attitude in them even after going down… it’s only the first half and we will work on how to come back for the second half.”
Albirex Head Coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga: “We knew that this is always a difficult ground to play on against difficult opponents who play very physically. I’m glad we overcame this and brought home an advantage – that’s the most positive thing. The result is appropriate because we do not have many difficult scenes (caused by Hougang). We will do recovery and prepare well for next game.”
Hougang: Ridhuan Barudin (GK), Muhaimin Suhaimi, Illyas Lee, Faiz Salleh, Jordan Vestering, Iqbal Hussain, Syahiran Miswan (Shahfiq Ghani 83’), Nurhilmi Jasni (C), Fareez Farhan (Nazrul Nazari 61’), Antoine Viterale (Chang Jo-yoon 87’), Fazrul Nawaz.
Unused subs: Zulfairuuz Rudy (GK), Stanely Ng, Syukri Bashir, Nikesh Singh .
Albirex: Yohsuke Nozawa (GK), Riku Moriyasu, Shuhei Sasahara, Shun Kumagai, Kenya Takahashi, Hiroyoshi Kamata, Daiki Asaoka, Wataru Murofushi (C) (Ryutaro Shibanoki 89’), Adam Swandi (Ryujiro Yamanaka 79’), Taku Morinaga, Shuhei Hoshino.
Unused subs: Taiki Itsukaichi (GK), Kazuki Sumiishi, Kodai Sumikawa, Ryuji Yamauchi, Kazuya Kojima.