A late equalizer in the last minute of regulation time, a goalline clearance in injury time and a controversial referee decision combined as Hougang United were denied all three points and an upset win over Albirex Niigata (S) at Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday night.
Nurhilmi Jasni had given Hougang United the lead in the first half after receiving a double nutmeg pass from Vuk Sotirovic. The Cheetahs then led for 54 minutes with an impressive defensive display that went undone as Itsuki Yamada salvaged a point for the White Swans. In a flurry of excitement in the final minutes of the game, Fareez Farhan came close to regaining the lead but his shot was blocked by Kento Fujihara right on the goalline.
The Line Ups
Hougang United made just one change to their starting line up as Delwinder Singh came in for a suspended Faizal Amir. This was Delwinder’s ninth appearance for the Cheetahs since joining the side in the mid-season transfer window but only his first in the right back position. He had previously played on the left side of defence.
Behind the scenes, there were a question mark over whether Carlos Delgado would be fit to play after suffering a minor groin injury during training on Monday but the Argentinian playmaker pulled through, passing a fitness test to start the game.
There was a surprise to Albirex Niigata’s line up as Atsushi Kawata, their top scorer in all competition, started on the bench. His place in the starting line up was filled by Kento Nagasaki, who was playing his first league game after receiving a straight red card earlier this month against Geylang International. Playmaker Fumiya Kogure and left midfielder Rion Taki were fielding for the first time against the Cheetahs after missing the two sides’ previous meeting back in April through injuries.
Albirex Niigata dominated possession throughout the first half and had the game’s first solid chance at breaking the deadlock in the 11th minute when Yamada was afforded the space to play a through ball to an unmarked Rui Kumada, who broke clear with a quick turn but blasted his shot high. Three minutes later, Kumada turned provider with a neat backheel to Shun Inaba. Shaking off Nurhilmi and Diego Gama, Inaba then dribbled past Tengku Mushahdad before hitting a shot straight to Ridhuan Barudin.
Hougang United responded within the same minute of play from a free kick in their own half taken by Tengku. His long ball found Kunihiro Yamashita in the White Swans’ penalty box. The Cheetahs’ top scorer struck with his left feet but his attempt was too strong and too high. It was a similar case for Diego as his close range header in the 18th minute smashed against the crossbar. Fairoz Hasan had sent the cross in after collecting the ball from Carlos.
Against the run of play, it was Hougang United who scored the opening goal in the 34th minute. A long throw in from Delwinder found Vuk on the right. Under pressure from Fujihara, the Serbian striker impressively controlled the ball and from the touchline delivered a pass that nutmeg both Fujihara and Inaba towards an unmarked Nurhilmi’s path. A right footed shot later and the Cheetahs captain had his second goal of the season.
Hougang United had the better chances early after the interval. Just two minutes from the resumption of play, Fairoz’s through ball found Vuk but the latter was only able to hit the side netting. Then in the 51st minute, a corner from Fairoz saw Takahiro Saito inexplicably heading towards his own net with Diego right in the ball’s path. The Brazilian’s own header resulted in the ball floating high above the crossbar.
Two minutes later came the game’s moment of controversy. The ball went from Fairoz to Nurhilmi to Vuk and finally to Diego inside the penalty box. Before he could struck the ball, Diego was physically hauled onto the ground by Fujihara’s arms. The commentators on Channel Okto’s live broadcast opined it was a clear penalty but referee Ahmad A’Qashah evidently thought otherwise.
The referee made another questionable decision in the 89th minute when he awarded a free kick to Kawata even though the substitute had slipped entirely by himself. The ensuing free kick was cleared for a throw in on the other side of the field – and it was from this throw in that Albirex Niigata scored their equalizer. Taki provided a long cross from the left that bounced off Shotaro Ihata onto Yamada, whose shot deflected off Tengku’s elbow to evade Ridhuan.
There was still time for some more drama as Hougang United made a quick response. Substitute Fazli Jaffar was unmarked on the left and, after receiving the ball from Carlos Delgado, delivered a cross towards fellow substitute Fareez. The latter’s shot was denied only by a goalline clearance by Fujihara. It was fittingly emblematic of the game as the Cheetahs came so close to attaining all three points but ultimately had to settle for a nonetheless credible draw against the title contenders.
Hougang United: Ridhuan Barudin, Delwinder Singh, Kunihiro Yamashita, Tengku Mushadad, Lau Meng Meng, Nurhilmi Jasni (C), Carlos Delgado, Atsushi Shimono, Fairoz Hasan (Fazli Jaffar 75′), Diego Gama (Fareez Farhan 88′), Vuk Sotirovic
Albirex Niigata (S): Yosuke Nozawa C), Mikiya Yamada, Kento Fujihara, Takahiro Saito, Itsuki Yamada, Hikaru Mizano, Shun Inaba, Kento Nagasaki (Atsushi Kawata 63′), Fumiya Kogure, Rion Taki, Rui Kumada (Shotaro Ihata 75′)