Voices From The Ground: Hougang United vs Home United: Clinical Cheetahs bring high flying Protectors down to earth

Photo: Heinkel Heinz

Chris Peng
The Unofficial S.League Podcast

Voices From The Ground:  In a pulsating encounter, defensive minded Hougang United showed everyone how to play an effective counter-attacking game and was richly rewarded for their efforts.

It was a good game full of thrills and spills and there were multiple candidates who could have staked a claim for the man-of-the-match award. Nazrul Nazari will be rightly vaunted for his spectacular efforts while Azhar Sairuddin’s backheel assist will be remembered for years to come.

To me, Lionel Tan was the player of the night. The former Home United Prime League player showed his former employers how it was done, displaying a sheer force of will, rampaging around like a force of nature and covering just about every inch on the pitch. The fanatical and faithful Hougang United supporters played a big part in their club’s recent upturn in fortunes as they never stopped singing througout the night.

Home United offered their fair share of thrills. They dominated every attacking statistic other than the total number of goals scored in the match. They dwarfed Hougang United in terms of possession, corners, shots both on and off target as well as the number of offside calls. Stipe Plazibat and Khairul Nizam both took their chances well while Sirina Camara continued his good run of form from the previous game. The Frenchman was a real menace on the left wing and provided a great assist for Khairul to knock in Home United's second goal.

However, Home United’s loss was no coincidence. They had 7 shots on target and sent 10 awry. A grand total of 2 goals was a scant return for their dominance. They had lots of control during the game but failed to penetrate as often as they should have. Goalkeeper Rudy Khairullah and striker Amirluddin Asraf may also have not done as well as they did against Albirex but it wouldn’t have mattered if Home United made better use of their chances.

During the press-conference, Hougang United’s Head Coach Philippe Aw felt that his side managed to overcome Home United’s quality through hard work and expressed great satisfaction at the victory. Due to the demanding schedule ahead, he felt the need to rest Japanese playmaker Fumiya Kogure for the bulk of the match, especially since the Jalan Besar pitch made it difficult to change directions. He also expressed satisfaction in taking down both the AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal Finalists within the span of two weeks and felt that it was a great morale booster for his players.

While Aw acknowledged that Hariss Harun didn’t have a great game, he graciously explained that Hariss was probably not at full match fitness and urged everyone to be more patient with him.

Lastly, when he was probed regarding how his team recovered from a 3-game losing run, Aw reasoned that he was previously missing all his forwards due to a spectrum of different reasons. Now that they were returning to action, he could foresee his team growing from strength to strength.

Home United’s Head Coach Aidil Shahrin, on the other hand was asked about what had gone wrong defensively for the Protectors. He felt that missing the chances throughout the game hurt his team as much as the mistakes they made at the back. However, he paid tribute to his team’s hard work and felt that the league was competitive as the match proved that every team could be beaten.

He also took full responsibility for the result and didn’t want any individual player to be blamed. In closing, he also did not attribute too much weightage on the loss due to his missing players, instead commeting that the players who took over their places did well.

Pre-Match interview with Home United Fan, Daniel Lau

Chris (C): Hi Daniel, how are you? I understand that you attended Home United’s training yesterday? What kind of vibe did they exude?

Daniel (D): They seem to be ready and it was good that they could train at Jalan Besar Stadium a day before the match. It also shows how serious they are.

C: Thankfully, Hassan will only miss out 5 weeks of action rather than 3 months. How do you feel about the competition between the second and third choice keepers?

D: I am the sentimental sort. Eko Pradana has been at the club for a long time and I have confidence in him. He didn’t do that well in the AFC match against Than Quang Ninh but I am hoping that he will get another chance. In contrast, Rudy Khairullah may be new but has done well since preseason. If he maintains his fine run and the confidence of his team-mates, the spot is probably his for now, until Hassan returns.

C: Stipe is the current joint top-scorer. He has equalized (Albirex Niigata striker) Tsubasa Sano’s tally. How do you feel about this player versus player, club versus club situation?

D: It doesn’t bother me. In the past, Home United’s Frederic Mendy was the top scorer but we won nothing. So, this achievement doesn’t mean much to me. The main objective must be the league, we have waited since 2003. I am sure Stipe feels the same.

C: Everyone was shocked to see Shahrin Saberin loaned out (to Garena Young Lions). Home United has 3 national team defenders in the middle of their defense, namely Afiq Yunos, Irfan Fandi and Abdil Qaiyyim, hence it may be a good thing that he’s not here to face this tough competition. How about next season?

D: If it’s his first and last SEA Games, there’s no reason for him to stay with the Young Lions. He should play for another club. If he were to come back, he will certainly be able to compete with the other three even if he doesn’t play for the first eleven. He’s a determined player who worked his way from a Sports School student who wasn’t named in the Youth Olympic Games squad to where he is now.

C: Coach Aw brought a whole host of players to Hougang United. Do you feel that Home United are missing any one of them?

D: No, we have capable replacements. However, for sentimental reasons, I feel that I personally miss Amir Zalani being at Home United. He has been with us for a long time and he kissed the crest in his last game for us. That means a lot to me.

For next season, it remains to be seen as we don’t know who will stay and who will go. Azhar Sairudin could have been a good replacement if the likes of Faris Ramli goes overseas. For now, I am optimistic that we will win the league. We have better players now. Amir and Lionel Tan were not first team players. That being said, I have been very impressed with Lionel Tan. He was good in the Prime League but has done surprisingly well for Hougang United, adapting so quickly. To put things into context, Nur Hizami did well in the Prime League but couldn’t score in the S.League.

C: What about Coach Aw? Any sentiments?

D: It’s about the three points and the Club comes first. That being said, I cannot forget that he brought us to the Cup Final in his first season. I'm sorry to say this though; I hope he loses tonight.

C: So, what does your heart and mind say about this game?

D: Of course, I am hoping for 3 points. I want to be cautious about this because there are seasons when we fail to win the league by a point or two. It’s not about losing to the big guns. It’s about dropping points to the other teams. So, all I want is a win tonight. If I am judging neutrally, I am still quietly confident of a win.

Post-Match interview with Daniel Lau

C: Sorry about the result. Do you think the loss was due to all the missed chances?

D: It was more of a case of Hougang United taking their chances

C: According to some folks. they felt that Rudy was at fault for the first goal. Don't you think we are fickle-minded people? When he did well last week, the ground sentiment was that he was a great replacement. Now there are murmurs about him that speak otherwise, kind of like what Stipe faced earlier in the season.

D: You must ask yourself, were there as much murmurs when Hassan gave away that penalty to Global Cebu (in the AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal Semi-Finals) last month? For tonight, people can say that Rudy should have saved it, but where were the defenders that were supposed to close the shot down in the first place?

C: Did Home United miss Song Ui-Young more in this game (as compared to the Albirex Niigata (S) encounter in the previous game)? Despite the loss, Camara was a real threat. Does this bode well for Home United?

D: Of course, we did well and we will continue to do so for every game Song's missing. His vision and creativity are second to none. Like what Hariss has said before, playing with him feels like you're playing with an extra man.

Pre-Match interview with Hougang United Fan, Amsyar Hanif

Chris (C): Hougang United lost three games in a row not too long ago. What happened? Right now, you guys are on an upward spiral, beating both the AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal Finalists.

Amsyar (A): I think mid-season, we had a lack of fire power upfront. Iqbal Hussain was missing in action, Fareez Farhan was down with an injury and Pablo Rodriguez was not even on the bench. We weren't conceding many goals but we weren't scoring as well.

We all know that scoring goals leads to winning games. Hopefully our upturn leads to a top 3 finish so that we can qualify for an AFC Cup spot next season. We saw Antoine Viterale score an all-important goal against Ceres Negros, yes, that's the Ceres Negros that beat JDT, to win the match.

C: Obviously Pablo Rodriguez has been with you guys for a bit while Viterale is up and coming from the Prime League. Based on what you have seen so far, what can you say about these two players?

A: I feel that Antoine has proved himself to be a hard worker who's always determined to improve and perform. As for Pablo, from the few matches that we've seen him play, I just feel that he doesn't fit into our style of play. Maybe his age is catching up with him? I don't know. But not even being on the bench is worrying and tells us a lot.

C: Coach Aw replaced Coach Bala at Hougang United this season. What can you say about their styles and their impact on the team?

A: Tough to call. I love them both equally as coaches!

C: Coach Aw brought a whole host of players to Hougang United. Which player has been the most impressive for you?

A: The best Hougang United recruit would definitely have to be Lionel Tan. He's probably the guy I'd pick as the breakout player of this season. He's young, hardworking and always looking to improve himself. But of course, what could be sweeter than the return of Azhar Sairudin to Hougang United?

C: I was studying a table which tabulated the results in which all matches ended at half time. In that table, Hougang would be 4th instead of 6th. Seems like some of the second halves have been sub-par for the Cheetahs. Could it be due to fitness?

A: We've had some pretty bad second halves so far. It may be their fitness, it may not be, all I know is, (head of player performance) Dirk Schauenberg is working hard with the team to improve the fitness of each and every one of the players. Maybe it’s the lack of goals that caused the bad second halves. You'll never know.

C: Hougang United has recruited astutely, getting two of the best Japanese players from Albirex Niigata (S). Any observations about your Japanese imports?

A: Our Japanese imports are amazing. Fumiya Kogure is always creative on the ball and slick with a sick first touch. Atsushi Shirota is a solid defender! Did you see how he defended against Ceres? He was everywhere. It was hard to get past him. They definitely bring a lot to the team and I would go as far to say that they're in the top 4 of the best foreign imports in this season's S.League.

Post-Match interview with Hougang Fan Amsyar Hanif

C: Congratulations! You must be overjoyed, beating both AFC Cup ASEAN Finalists in the span of two weeks.

A: Absolutely! For two games in a row, we have defeated opponents that everyone expected us to lose to.

C: Hougang United is proving their critics wrong indeed.

A: I think Hougang United gained a huge boost in confidence after winning against Albirex Niigata (S). Moving forward, I hope that the boys will rest well and avoid injuries ahead.

C: To play five games in two weeks, it must be pretty taxing on the team.

A: Yes. I feel that the fixtures could have been more forgiving given that we had a lull period where we didn’t have any games for a while. Well, we still achieved the unbelievable given these odds.

C: With the way you guys cheered,  the Hougang HOOLs were indeed the 12th man. Coach Aw explained in his post-match press conference that the losing streak (earlier in the season) was due to the three missing strikers.

A: Yes, we missed them a lot. Now that they are back, we are seeing results again.

C: At least Hougang United does not need to rely on false number nines needed any more. Wasn’t that a role which Azhar Sairuddin played sometimes?

A: We were playing defensively and it worked twice in a row during this period. This is a message to the (Singapore Head Coach) Sundram, this is how you park the bus and win. (grins widely)

C: He may need that for the upcoming national team games against the likes of Turkmenistan.

A: Hopefully the national team does well.

C: Back to tonight’s game, how did you feel about the first goal? Was it in a way gifted?

A: A goal is a goal. It’s good that we got the lead. I was mind blown by our second goal though. It was a good game full of back-and-forth action.

C: So, was the final score line beyond your wildest dreams, or, did you predict a Cheetahs' win?

A: To be honest, I expected a 2-2 score line. When it comes to Hougang, I don’t mind guessing wrongly and winning!

C: Finally, who is your man-of-the-match?

A: Definitely Nazrul Nazari. The lad is on fire, even when he put on national colours against Argentina and Myanmar.

C: Coach Aw did mentioned that Hougang hasn’t won anything yet. With him in control, how do you feel about the club’s prospects?

A: Most of us hardcore fans say that we don’t really care about the silverware. If we can win either the the Singapore Cup or the League Cup, it would be super awesome for us. Qualification for the AFC Cup would be awesome as well, to give us access to more away matches.

C: After the three losses, you guys have rebounded in style. Lionel Tan had a great game in my opinion.

A: He has always impressed me.

C: For now, thanks again and congratulations. Good luck for next week. I know that football is not really a game of math, but Home United did beat Albirex 2-0. Now that you guys have beaten Home United 3-2, let's see how it goes from here.

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