The buzz at Hougang Stadium continued on Thursday evening despite the end of the General Election as the Cheetahs of Hougang United put on what coach Aide Iskandar termed “probably their best collective performance of the season” by coming up 2-0 triumph against high-flying Tampines Rovers.
It was the first league defeat the Stags had suffered this season, meaning they are now just a point clear of challengers Home United.
Rarely have Tampines been made to look so ordinary this season as they hardly tested Fadhil Salim in the home side’s goal throughout the game. Even league top-scorer Aleksander Duric did not get a proper sniff at goal for the entire match, another sign of the work the Cheetahs put in on the night.
Hougang sounded their warning early in the fifth minute when Canadian Jordan Webb chested a long ball before squaring to midfielder Azhar Sairudin whose left foot effort flew just over.
Webb then had an attempt palmed clear by Tampines’ keeper Hassan Sunny two minutes later after outwitting defender Park Yo Seb on the right flank.
Tampines picked up their game soon after but had little to show for in the first period other than a freekick attempt on target from playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman just before the break.
By then, the home side had already taken the lead.
In the 34th minute, off a quick freekick from Carlos Delgado, rising star Basit Hamid muscled his way to Hassan’s goal but was denied by a smart save from the national custodian.
From the resulting corner, defender Syaqir Sulaiman glanced a header towards goal which caused confusion at the Tampines’ goal. Despite the defence and Hassan’s best efforts, the ball somehow crept into goal, sending the Hougang fans delirious.
The Stags tried to find a way to level the game after that but were lucky not to go two down within ten minutes of the second period themselves.
In the 53th minute, an alert Basit intercepted a back-pass but was slid down in the box by Hassan, who did not seem to mange contact with the ball.
To the amazement of the crowd who had expected a penalty and possibly a red card, referee Sukhbir Singh and his assistant saw nothing wrong with the incident and only awarded a goalkick in Tampines’ favour.
However, Hassan’s luck ran out ten minutes later as an early shower for him did finally occur.
Hougang’s Sobrie Mazlan bamboozled two Tampines defenders and found his way into the box, where his initial shot was parried by Hassan.
The rebound fell to substitute Noor Ali who sidestepped Hassan but was brought down by the Stags No. 1 for an apparently dangerous tackle.
Hassan was sent straight off and Hougang was awarded a spotkick which Delgado coolly slotted home past substitute keeper Hafez Mawasi for 2-0.
Stags’ coach Steven Tan responded by pushing Park into an advanced role along Duric as he looked for a way back for his team.
The tactical switch proved somewhat useful as his team began to cause some minor scares to their opponents in the closing stages but to no avail as the Hougang backline stood tall, leaving Fadhil’s gloves pretty clean at the end of fulltime.
Speaking to sleague.com after the game, Aide commended his boys’ performance, while admitting the Stags did look lethargic tonight.
“It was obvious to see we were the hungrier side. We showed determination and perseverance throughout the game and I am proud of my boys”, as he beamed in delight.
Quizzed about the impact their boisterous fans made, the former national skipper expressed his gratefulness.
“The fans have been superb. They raise out energy levels everytime.”
“It clearly showed today as the boys was motivated, whenever their names were sung or the team was being chanted. So we have to thank them”, he added.
Tampines coach Tan was frank in his post match interview, crediting the hungry Cheetahs for a job well done.
“They played very well today. They didn’t give us a chance to play, closed us down and broke up our rhythm.”
Reflecting on his team’s performance, the former national forward added, “The boys gave their all, their commitment was there, so I can’t ask for much more”, while admitting fatigue could have finally caught up his team.
Tan’s team would now switch focus back on the continent stage as they prepare to leave for Iraq on Saturday to faceoff with Arbil for the second round of the AFC Cup three days later.
Hougang, on the other hand, take on Etoile on Monday back at their own Hougang caludron.