- Singapore Premier League
SPL : Hougang United stun title contenders Tampines Rovers 3-2!
(Photo of HGFC : Football Association of Singapore)
By Chia Han Keong
Hougang United (HGFC) may not be playing the prettiest football in the Singapore Premier League (SPL). But they've shown that their directness is deadly effective this season, as they climbed to third in the table with a come-from-behind 3-2 win over Tampines Rovers on Saturday (22 May).
Over at Our Tampines Hub (OTH), HGFC Coach Clement Teo’s side rely heavily on stout defending, lightning-fast counter-attacks and the lethal precision of striker Tomoyuki Doi to achieve success -- all basic and uncomplicated tactics. Yet, as Tampines found out to their cost, when the Cheetahs hit their rhythm, they would tear their opponents’ defence into shreds and score goals in bunches. And for all of the home side’s huffing and puffing at OTH, once Hougang shut up shop after taking the lead, their tall defenders make sure they did not squander the goal advantage.
(Photo Credit : Football Association of Singapore)
With Hougang missing their suspended centre-back Lionel Tan, they struggled initially to contain the Stags’ formidable trio of Boris Kopitovic, Kyoga Nakamura and especially left winger Armin Bosnjak, who tormented right-back Nazrul Nazari right from the kick-off.
The Montenegrin duly produced a superb assist for the opening goal in the 12th minute. Shielding Nazrul off the ball as he dribbled down the left touchline, Bosnjak conjured a pin-point cross to find his captain Yasir Hanapi unmarked in the box. Despite Yasir’s slight stature, he had all the time in the world to jump and put in an accurate header past Syazwan Buhari.
(Photo Credit : Tampines Rovers FC)
Yet, Hougang crept back into the game, even as they were under constant pressure by Tampines’ stylish attack. After being pegged back for the opening 30 minutes, the Cheetahs began to test the hosts’ defence, with Doi nearly sprinting through for an open shot in the 32nd minute, before a last-ditch tackle by Baihakki Khaizan.
Coach Teo then made a significant tactical tweaking, switching the wingers Idraki Adnan and Shawal Anuar. And the switch paid off dividends in first-half stoppage time, as Hougang finally broke through. A long ball by midfielder Kaishu Yamazaki found Shawal in plenty of space, but the 30-year-old veteran wasted no time in measuring a brilliant first-time lob towards an onrushing Doi. The Japanese hitman’s attempt was well-saved by Syazwan, but the goalkeeper was stranded as Nazrul rushed into the box to slam home the equaliser.
Buoyed by the timely leveller, HGFC began the second half on a tear. Defender Maksat Dzhakybaliev agonisingly missed a header in front of an open goal following a corner in the 47th minute, but the visitors took the lead just three minutes later. A weak pass by Yamazaki was intercepted by Shawal, who immediately picked out Doi with his second touch. Doi also needed just two touches to control the pass and sweep the ball past Syazwan for his league-leading 14th goal of the season.
By now, Tampines were reeling from Hougang’s swift attacks, and they were undone again six minutes later through a classic counter-attack by their opponents.
Kopitovic was dispossessed by Hougang captain Anders Aplin, who did well to keep the ball in play and make a pass to midfielder Naufal Azman. Naufal immediately picked up the run of fellow midfielder Hafiz Abu Sujad in Tampines’ penalty area with an exquisite pass. Hafiz’s stinging attempt was parried by Syazwan onto the left post, and the ball rebounded back into the path of Idraki, who was able to celebrate his first call-up to the national team with an easy goal.
(Photo Credit of Idraki : Football Association of Singapore)
Down 1-3, and Tampines threw caution in the wind by putting on Irwan Shah and Taufik Suparno to offer more creativity in attack. Yet, it was Bosnjak again who was crucial in their second goal in the 62nd minute, producing another superb cross from the left flank for Kopitovic to muscle in and head home from close range.
From then on, it was a backs-against-the-wall effort by Hougang, who sat back and invited Tampines to lay siege on their goalmouth. Yet, such was their defenders’ resoluteness that the Stags could not find a clear-cut opportunity for the remainder of the match. They also rode their luck, as Tampines had what seemed like a clear penalty turned down, as Bosnjak was bundled down by Shawal in the box.
When the final whistle blew, the Hougang players let out roars of delight, as they ended Tampines’ five-match unbeaten run while racking up their third straight win. Unfancied for a title push at the start of the season, they've proven so far that their brand of no-nonsense football can make them stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best in the league.
Hougang now have seven wins from 11 matches on 23 points, a point behind defending champions Albirex Niigata (S) who have a game in hand, and two further points behind leaders Lion City Sailors, who scored a 1-0 win over bottom-placed Young Lions on Saturday.
“It was a good team performance, and I want to commend my players on their spirit and determination to come back for the win,” Teo said after the match. “This team spirit is very important to our success, and I was glad to see even our substitutes encouraging the team from the stands.”
Indeed, it had looked as if Tampines were on their way to a dominant victory early in the match, before they take a long break from the SPL to compete in the AFC Champions League in Uzbekistan from 25 June to 10 July.
Chia Han Keong is a freelance journalist who has covered both Singapore and international sports extensively for the past 18 years. He was the sports editor of bilingual tabloid My Paper, and has also worked for The Straits Times and Yahoo News Singapore. He has covered four SEA Games (2009, 2011, 2013, 2019), two Asian Games (2010, 2014) as well as the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. He counts himself as a massive Liverpool, LA Lakers and Rafael Nadal fan.