Hougang And Albirex Share The Spoils In League Cup Opener

Pablo Rodriguez (left) chases for the ball with Takuya Akiyama in tow.
Photo: Christina Seah Rodrigues

Syamil Sapari
The Unofficial S.League Podcast

TNP League Cup (7 July 2017) - Hougang followed up their impressive 2-1 win over Albirex with another solid display in their opening TNP League Cup game against the same opponents,as they held the defending champions to a 0-0 draw on Friday evening at the Hougang Stadium.

As early as the first minute, Hougang’s prized playmaker Fumiya Kogure almost scored with an acrobatic attempt after a subtle knock-on by Fabian Kwok, which Yosuke Nozawa managed to save comfortably.

The second real chance of the game came only 22 minutes later when Koki Sato unleashed a fierce shot that stung the goalpost before the ball went out for a goal kick, much to the surprise of the stadium who were starting to grow bored from the dull opening 20 minutes of football.

Hougang responded two minutes later when diminutive winger Nazrul Nazali whipped in a delicious cross into the box, but his Spanish counterpart Pablo Rodriguez only managed to put his shot just wide off the goalpost.

The two sides took turns creating their opportunities in the space of ten minutes as prolific goalscorer Tsubasa Sano was put through on goal four minutes later after turning Atsushi Shirota inside out but Hougang had Ridhuan Barudin to thank for as he brilliantly dealt with a one-on-one  situation against the league's second leading goalscorer, diving to his bottom left to parry the shot out for a corner.

Shoichiro Sakamoto had a golden opportunity to strike first blood seconds before the interval but he somehow rocketed his shot up high and wide from close range after the ball fell to him near the far-post from an Albirex corner kick. It was a game of chess in the first half, as Hougang were content with sitting back waiting to pounce on a counterattacking opportunity, seemingly happy to let their opponents dominate most of the possession.

The start to the second-half was an equally dry run of football as key players from both teams failed to inspire any real kind of threat to jeopardize the opposing defences. Hougang target man Rodriguez seemed to have lost all sense of positioning in the game as he strayed countless times into offside positions while his Japanese counterpart Kogure, who was not at full match fitness, got substituted 12 minutes after the second-half kick-off.

On a night where supporters expected the White Swans to turn up hungry for a revenge, most of the Albirex players dimmed in comparison to Naofumi Tanaka, who constantly posed a threat to the Hougang defence with his outstanding runs on the left wing. It was a shame none of the attacking trios were able to do his service any justice, as they time and time again failed to convert any of Tanaka’s crosses into goals.

Sakamoto’s lacklustre performance later got him substituted by Rui Kamada 69 minutes into the game and a minute later Albirex had a great chance of scoring when Hiroyoshi Kamata was put through on goal after receiving a through ball from Ryota Nakai, but his shot was tamed by Ridhuan who put in a solid performance throughout the whole night in between the posts.

Kamata engineered another potential goalscoring opportunity two minutes later when he dribbled through the Hougang defence and cuts it back to Sano, who went close with a shot just outside the penalty box as the stadium was rallied in that brief moment of excitement.

As Albirex started to pile the pressure, Hougang captain Azhar Sairudin was substituted for Faiz Salleh in the 76th minute in a defensive attempt to weather the storm. That didn’t seem to faze the Japanese side as Kamata yet again managed to steer through the Hougang defence and decided to take matters into his own hands with a shot to the near post, which the Hougang custodian stooped low to save easily.

It was not until the final minute of the game that the White Swans had their last golden opportunity to change the tally, as Sano only had the goalkeeper to beat but he made the wrong decision to unselfishly lay it off to a teammate who never arrived, instead of shooting. The ball then rolled out for a goal kick and thereon Sano knew he had squandered a last gasp opportunity that could have seen his side finished on top.

The scoreline stayed at 0-0 until full-time, much to the disappointment of fans in the stadium as they knew they had witnessed a tedious game of football, contrary to their pre-match expectations. Some probably felt like they chose to attend the wrong game for the night as the other group match in Choa Chu Kang Stadium finished in thrilling fashion; 4-3 in favour of the Warriors, against Home United.

Hougang United Coach Philippe Aw expressed his contentment when he was questioned if a point meant that the goods were delivered against a strong Albirex Niigata (S) side: “One point tonight is good because we know Albirex will come today more determined to do the job. This is a cup competition so it is important that we start the competition without losing. It’s a tricky group as we are in the group of death so we don’t want to give our opponents the 3 points, so 1 point in the end is good for us.”

On whether he had any dilemmas fielding the starting XI for the game, he said: “We talk about the big picture, we talk about keeping players fresh and we made 7 changes tonight so we wanted to let the fresh players play and those players who played on Monday, were rested.”

Coach Aw also expressed his satisfaction for 17 year old Gerald Ting’s performance, who has been a revelation for the Hougang defence in the two games against Albirex: “There were occasions where he could have got caught out because if we had Lionel (Tan), our defence would be more stable, but I have no problems giving the young boy a chance because he has potential and also because he works hard for the team. His confidence will grow from playing the two big games against Albirex (considering how he never played an S.League game before these two games), as they are the best team in the league.”

Albirex Niigata (S) Coach Yoshinaga Kazuaki shared the same sentiments on sharing the point with Hougang: “This is a group stage where we have 3 games, so we see this as a 1 point game and this point can be huge for us in this group stage, especially when are in the group of death.”

With Hougang getting their tactics spot on in the two games against the White Swans, the press was curious if Coach Kazuaki will have any problem dealing with the same tactics from the other teams. To this, he said: “I don’t mind if the Home United coach or Warriors coach use the same tactics against us (as Hougang) because it will be a good practice for our organization. I think whether it is 3 backs against us or 4 backs against us, this kind of thing will probably will improve the football knowledge of everyone in the football industry because it can be interesting for the fans, journalists, and coaches. We want to do this type of knowledge exchange that is in the interest of all parties involved because in the end, everybody’s footballing knowledge will increase, making football more interesting which will in turn lead to more people finding the S.League more interesting.”

The draw sees Hougang and Albirex sharing the second and third spot with a point each in Group A, as they trail behind the Warriors with 3 points. Home United occupies the fourth position with 0 points.

Full-Time at Hougang Stadium: TNP League Cup (7 July 2017)
 Hougang United – 0 Albirex Niigata (S) – 0

Hougang United: Ridhuan Barudin, Ali Hudzaifi, Atsushi Shirota, Gerald Ting, Zulfahmi Arifin, Azhar Sairudin (C) (Faiz Salleh 76’), Fumiya Kogure (Fairoz Hasan 57’), Nazrul Nazari, Fabian Kwok, Syahiran Miswan (Afiq Noor 90’), Pablo Rodriguez

Albirex Niigata (S): Yosuke Nozawa, Takuya Akiyama, Naofumi Tanaka, Yasutaka Yanagi, Shuto Inaba (C), Ryota Nakai, Kento Nagasaki, Koki Sato, Hiroyoshi Kamata, Tsubasa Sano, Shoichiro Sakamoto (Rui Kamada 69’)

TNP League Cup - Group A Results & Standings (7 July 2017)

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