Albirex Niigata (S) continued their imperious form in the Great Eastern Yeo’s S.League after beating Hougang United 2-1 at Hougang Stadium on Wednesday night to extend their winning run to nine games.
The victory was not a walk in the park for the White Swans by any stretch of imagination though, as they struggled to break down the compact Cheetahs in the first period and went a goal down before storming back to claim victory in the second-half.
In contrast, the loss for the Cheetahs meant that their unbeaten run at home this season has come to end and left them still searching for a victory after six games.
It was the hosts who began the match on the front foot and came close to breaking the deadlock in the 12th minute when a beautiful pass from Fumiya Kogure sent Stipe Plazibat through on goal, but the Croatian fired straight at Yousuke Nozawa after cutting in from the left to shoot with his right foot.
Albirex came close themselves five minutes later when Hiroyoshi Kamata dazzled his way into the 18-yard box, before firing a powerful shot at goal that was brilliantly tipped over by Hougang custodian Khairulhin Khalid.
That proved to be the only shot on target the White Swans had for the rest of the half as they struggled to break down a compact Hougang side employing a counter-attacking strategy against the league leaders.
A moment of magic from Kogure almost paid off in the 19th minute when the Japanese fired an effort from an acute angle out on the left flank, but saw the ball curled narrowly away from the far post.
Hougang finally found the breakthrough in the 39th minute when Kaplan met Kogure’s free-kick at the far post and glanced home a powerful header for his third league goal of the season.
The hosts could have added another two minutes before the interval when Plazibat ran on to Wahyudi Wahid’s long ball out of defence, but Nozawa was quick off his line to parry away the Croatian’s powerful drive.
The White Swans came out for the second period determined to reduce the deficit and duly pulled level in the 57th minute when Tatsuro Inui’s defence-splitting pass found Atsushi Kawata and the striker slotted past Khairulhin for his 11th league goal of the season.
Albirex then went ahead for the first time in the game six minutes later when Inui lined up a free-kick on the edge of the box and sent a trademark effort into the back of the net for his third goal in less than a week.
The home fans had their hearts in their mouths in the 80th minute when Kawata found himself free six-yards away from the goalmouth, but Khairulhin pulled off a top-drawer save to push away the Japanese’s powerful effort from Kamata’s flick-on.
Hougang had a glorious chance to draw level three minutes later when Plazibat kept the ball well in the 18-yard box and laid it off to Nazrul Nazari. However, the winger’s shot flashed narrowly wide of the far post.
Hougang United coach K.Balagumaran: “We did very well in the first-half, defended well because we knew they would come at us in numbers and we scored a goal.
“I thought we could keep our tactical discipline and stay compact in the second-half, but the equaliser changed the game and we couldn’t cope with them after that.”
Albirex Niigata (S) coach Naoki Nauro: “We didn’t play well in the first-half because Hougang were very defensive, so it took us some time to build up our offense as we could only counter-attack.
“But we made some changes at half-time, by moving our defensive line higher and playing wider, sending the ball to our wingers. That helped us in the end.”
Hougang United: Khairulhin Khalid (GK), Delwinder Singh, Faiz Salleh, Wahyudi Wahid, M.Anumanthan, Raihan Rahman (Nur Ridho 78′), Nurhilmi Jasni (Iqbal Hussain 65′) , Fumiya Kogure (Nur Na’iim Ishak 87′), Jozef Kaplan (C), Stipe Plazibat
Albirex Niigata (S): Yosuke Nozawa (GK) (C), Mikiya Yamada, Kento Fujihara, Atsushi Shirota, Naofumi Tanaka, Tomoki Menda, Shuto Inaba, Kento Nagasaki, Tatsuro Inui (Daichi Ishiyama 69′), Atsushi Kawata (Rui Kumada 90′), Hiroyoshi Kamata (Kazuki Mine 84′)
Match report by: Shawn Lim
Photos courtesy of Haiqal Tahir