Written by: Ryan Low
Warriors FC got the point they needed to progress from Group A into The New Paper League Cup semi-finals, after a 2-2 draw against Hougang United at Hougang Stadium on Thursday night.
Hougang came from behind twice to level the score, but Warriors dug deep to hold on for the crucial point to edge out the Cheetahs for the runners-up spot in the proverbial Group of Death.
The uniformed outfit got off to the best possible start by scoring inside four minutes.
After Andrei-Cosmin Ciolacu was brought down outside the box, Fazli Jaffar stepped up to deliver a superb free kick for Shahril to head past Ridhuan Barudin.
That draw a spirited response from Hougang, with Nazrul Nazari seeing his shot from a tight angle denied by the right-hand post in the 12th minute.
The Cheetahs kept pushing forward and got their rewards in the 35th minute, with Fareez Farhan coolly guiding the ball in off the post after Azhar Sairudin’s lofted ball into the area.
However, Philippe Aw’s side fell asleep after the equaliser and conceded just two minutes later.
With Ridhuan flapping at Shahril’s corner, Ho Wai Loon sneaked in to thump home a superb half-volley into the roof of the net to put the Warriors back in front.
Hougang could have levelled matters just before half time when Emmeric Ong’s clearance came off Nazrul, but the ball came off the right-hand post before bouncing to safety.
The Cheetahs refused to lie down after the restart and duly found a second equaliser in the 57th minute, with Spanish forward Pablo Rodriguez directing home a header from Nazrul’s pinpoint right-wing cross.
Japanese playmaker Fumiya Kogure was then introduced into the fray to replace Azhar Sairudin as the home side went in search of a possible winner to progress.
However, Warriors enjoyed the better opportunities with Ho’s sweet volley from the edge of the box tipped over by Ridhuan in the 76th minute.
There was still time for a late winner for Hougang, but Nazrul was unable to fire on target from just outside the area.
Time soon ran out for the luckless Cheetahs as they missed out on The New Paper League Cup semi-finals, but the Northeast-based side can take heart from finishing the campaign undefeated with three draws.
Hougang United Head Coach Philippe Aw: “We didn’t start well and made mistakes, gifting Warriors two goals. In the last 10 minutes, we had time to score (a winner) but we were rushing into things and hitting hopeful balls. We had corners but we didn’t make full use of them.
“When the draw was made, no one gave us a chance of qualifying but we were still in chance with a chance until this last group game.
“We can take big heart from this run of six games (in all competitions) undefeated against top opponents. Now we have to focus on pushing for a top-three finish in the S.League and gunning for the Singapore Cup.”
Warriors FC Head Coach Razif Onn: “We pressed in the middle third and contained Hougang well. We knew what they’re trying to do with Nazrul down the right, so I asked Fazli to drop back to support Zulfadli (Zainal) in defence.
“I was also impressed by Wai Loon, who ran like hell in this game – offering us speed and aggression in the midfield.
“It’s unfortunate that Ah Lau (Hyrulnizam Juma’at) got his second yellow of the tournament and will miss the semis. I’m relieved to progress and now we have to look forward to whoever we play, be it (Brunei) DPMM or Geylang (International).
Hougang United: Ridhuan Barudin (GK), Nazrul Nazari, Gerald Ting, Atsushi Shirota, Zulfahmi Arifin, Ali Hudzaifi, Fabian Kwok (Fairoz Hasan 85’), Syahiran Miswan, Fareez Farhan (Iqbal Hussain 77’), Azhar Sairudin (C) (Fumiya Kogure 66’), Pablo Rodriguez
Warriors FC: Hyrulnizam Juma’at (GK), Enmeric Ong, Kento Fukuda, Hafiz Osman, Zulfadli Zainal Abidin, Syaqir Sulaiman (Shaiful Esah 83’), Ho Wai Loon, Jordan Webb, Shahril Ishak (C) (Hafiz Nor 67’), Fazli Jaffar (Danial Zulkifli 74’), Andrei-Cosmin Ciolacu