New head coach K. Balagumaran’s first game in charge of Hougang United started in the most exhilarating fashion before ending in a frustratingly disappointing manner as the Cheetahs’ final home game of the season saw them defeated by Harimau Muda. In a lightning speed sequence, Nurhilmi Jasni scored the opener in just 16 seconds from kick off only for Syafwan Syahlan to respond over the course of the game with a brace.
The result gave the visitors their first back-to-back wins since April this year. For Hougang United, this was their fourth defeat in five games and their winless streak now stretches to eight. Fail to defeat Geylang International or Albirex Niigata (S) in their final two matches and the Cheetahs will have the ignominy of ending the season in the same way they started it – with a ten games winless streak.
Following Geylang International’s draw with the Young Lions at Jalan Besar Stadium on the same evening, Hougang United are now four points adrift at the bottom of the S.League table with only two games left to play. Even a win over Geylang International in the next game might not be enough to avoid the wooden spoon.
The Line Ups
For only the second time this season, the Cheetahs had players unavailable for selection through suspensions. Muhaymin Salim and Fazli Jaffar had both collected their fourth yellow card of the season in the draw with Balestier Khalsa on Sunday. This was a particular blow for Muhaymin as he had just made his first start in 17 games, only to find himself having to sit the next one out as a disciplinary measure. Fazli Jaffar’s first two yellow cards were carried over from his short stint with Warriors in the first half of the season.
In their absence, Fareez Farhan was fielded in left midfield while Ruzaini Zainal was shifted up from right back to right midfield. Diego Gama’s return to the frontline allowed Kunihiro Yamashita to move back to his customary centreback position. In Carlos Delgado’s absence through injury, Nurhilmi partnered Atsushi Shimono in centre midfield for the second game in a row.
Harimau Muda were unavailable to select Adam Nor Azlin, Nazirul Naim and Syahrul Azwari after the trio were called up by the Malaysian national team. Wan Ahmad and Syawal Nordin were also absent after starting in the youth development side’s previous game, a 1:0 win over Home United. Top scorer Faizat Ghazali made his return to the starting line-up, alongside Irfan Zakaria, Azrul Nizam and Amirul Ikmal.
The First Half
From the kick off, Gama rolled the ball forward towards Fareez, who raced down the left flank before turning past Amirul Ikmal at the touchline and racing further towards goal. At the edge of the penalty box, Fareez pulled a cut back cross to a leaping Nurhilmi. Deflecting off the foot of Kenny Pallraj, the ball rolled into the back of the net to the bewilderment of a Harimau Muda side that had yet to touch the ball. It had taken 16 seconds for Hougang United to get the lead and the breathtaking speed had clearly caught the visitors off guard.
The game’s pace was frenetic in the opening period as one close chance followed another. Three minutes after the goal, Nurhilmi almost turned from scorer to provider with a through ball past Azrul to Sotirovic. Evading Annas Rahmat, Sotirovic unleashed a curler that prompted an acrobatic save from Ilham Amirullah. Akhir Bahari had the visitors’ first attempt at goal in the 7th minute when he found space in the box but his shot was blasted wide off the near post. Two minutes later, Ilham was unable to hold onto Sotirovic’s long range effort but the goalkeeper managed to clear the ball away before Gama could get to it. Sotirovic then headed a ball just wide from a cross delivered by Nurhilmi in the 11th minute.
Ruzaini did well in the 28th minute to dribble the ball into the box past Azrul and Akhir but his shot was safely collected by Ilham. More threatening was the corner from Ruzaini three minutes later that saw the ball floating from Yamashita’s head to Yuki Uchiyama’s head to the tip of Ilham’s fingers for another corner. Sotirovic then had a close chance to double the home side’s lead when he went one on one with the goalkeeper after being played through by Gama. Ilham – who performed well despite the opening goal – managed to clear the ball before Sotirovic could muster a shot.
Against the run of play, Harimau Muda then found an equalizer from a cross delivered by Faizat in the 35th minute. Akhir Bahari’s header struck the far post and the ball rebounded for Syafwan Syahlan to tap it in at close range. The celebration was muted as Akhir had injured himself with an awkward fall and was eventually substituted off for Ridzuan Abdunloh. In between the goal and the substitution, while the visitors had a one man disadvantage, Hougang United came close to regaining the lead after Gama received the ball in a dangerous position near the penalty spot but his shot was scuffed wide.
The Second Half
Harimau Muda dominated the game for a short while after the interval with Ridhuan Barudin forced to make two saves in as many minutes, the second of which at the 54th minute mark was with his feet to deny Faizat. At the other end, Sotirovic dazzled his way into the box between two defenders before finding himself on the ground. No penalty was awarded as the referee waved played on. In the 66th minute, Sotirovic wasted a golden opportunity when he managed to dribble past Ilham, only for the Serbian striker to inexplicably hesitate for too long, ultimately losing the ball to a sliding one footed challenge from Azrul.
Harimau Muda took the lead in the 78th minute when Syafwan Syahlan broke clear from a long ball. He had done the same thing in the 57th minute only for Ridhuan to intercept and clear the ball away. This time around though, Syafwan managed to evade the Cheetahs goalkeeper, slotting the ball under Ridhuan into an empty net. There were still time for Hougang United to pile on the pressure as they search for an equalizer. Ilham came to the rescue of his side when he parried away a Gama free kick shot at the 89th minute.
For the first time in six encounters between the two sides, there were no red card to be seen. There were a number of injuries though. Aside from Akhir, Irfan Zakaria had to be substituted early just before half time with Naim Zakaria coming on in his place. Hougang United also suffered a blow when Fareez had to be stretchered off in the 71st minute with Haidil Sufian as his replacement. This was the first time this season that a member of Hougang United’s Prime League team had appeared for the S.League side on the bench and on the field.
Hougang United’s next and penultimate game of the season will be against Geylang International at Bedok Stadium on Monday, the 9th of November.
Hougang United: Ridhuan Barudin, Yuki Uchiyama, Kunhiro Yamashita, Delwinder Singh, Faiz Salleh (Kenneth Chang 90′), Ruzaini Zainal (Faizal Amir 84′), Nurhilmi Jasni, Atsushi Shimono, Fareez Farhan (Haidil Sufian 71′), Diego Gama, Vuk Sotirovic
Harimau Muda: lham Amirullah, Kenny Pallraj, Azrul Nizam Muhammad, Amirul Ikmal, Annas Rahmat (Shahrul Igwan 78′), Akhir Bahari (Ridzuan Abdunloh 37′), Amirul Hisyam, Irfan Zakaria (Naim Zakaria 45′), Kumaahran Sathasivam, Syafwan Syahlan, Faizat Ghazali