League Cup: Sakurada settles drab contest
Photography by Ko Po Hui
An injury-time goal from midfield dynamo Shimpei Sakurada was sufficient to send Singapore Armed Forces FC into the StarHub League Cup semifinals at the expense of Hougang United following a dry encounter at Choa Chu Kang Stadium on Saturday evening.
The 28-year-old knocked the ball past Hougang’s Fadhil Salim after fellow Japanese Tatsuro Inui’s penalty attempt was initially saved by the one-time SAFFC goalkeeper.
The 1-0 result sets up a repeat of the League Cup final three years ago, as the Warriors head to Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday evening to face Bruneian outfit DPMM FC, who overcame Home United on penalties in the other quarterfinals clash of the evening.
SAFFC head coach Richard Bok recalled regular custodian Shahril Jantan after goalkeeper coach Rezal Hassan enjoyed his mini-comeback in the group stage, while 20-year-old Croat Marin Jonjic kept his place in the team at the expense of rested compatriot Mislav Karoglan.
Hougang’s Nenad Bacina meanwhile restored his strongest lineup, with the exception of long-term injury victim Stanislav Vidakovic, after giving his fringe players a good workout in their 0-2 home loss to Home a few days ago.
Despite both sides fielding stronger lineups than they had done during the group stage and showing commitment and effort, the first half was a dreadful affair, with awful passing and continual turnover of possession.
Even when chances presented themselves, the shooting was also shambolic, often going off target at both ends, with the hosts’ Erwan Gunawan most culpable in this department in the opening 45 minutes.
The 25-year-old had two opportunities to give the Warriors the lead midway in the first half amidst goalmouth melees.
The first time, he saw his shot blocked by a sea of white shirts, and he later witnessed his rebound fly over the bar without giving Hougang’s Fadhil so much as a fright.
It took an injury-time attempt to witness the first meaningful shot on target before the break as Cheetahs playmaker Ante Barac sent a low piledriver from outside the box, which was masterfully turned away by an alert Shahril.
The second half was an improved affair as both teams went out to settle the game in regulation time.
A snap-shot inside the box by Warriors skipper Daniel Bennett drew a top-class reflex save from Fadhil two minutes after the restart, quickly setting the tone.
Then a good attacking move on the right for Hougang saw Fazli Jaffar weave past three SAFFC players inside the box and launch a shot that Shahril was also equal to on the hour.
With the clock ticking away, the Warriors thought they had taken the lead 81 minutes in when a 40-yard free kick from Inui sailed towards the net, and while Fadhil caught the ball, his body was fully behind the goalline inside the net, and his clutches appeared on the line.
The nearby SAFFC strikers promptly claimed that the ball had crossed the line, but both referee K. Kalimuthu and his assistant Jeffrey Goh ruled otherwise.
Substitute Fazrul Nawaz came close to breaking the deadlock for the hosts three minutes from time when he pounced on a mis-hit attempt by Bennett, only for it to go just wide.
With the clash almost inexorably heading towards another 30 minutes of additional play, a lifeline came in the form of Kalimuthu, who rightly or wrongly has gained a reputation for officiating matches that more often than not end up with at least one penalty given.
And one was indeed given in this match in injury time, as Hougang fullback Fazly Hasan was sent to the showers for his handling of a Fazrul attempt inside the box, reducing the visitors to ten men.
Although Inui saw his spot-kick saved by Fadhil, the loose ball was met by Sakurada, who did not waste the rebound, slamming it home at the near post to send SAFFC through into the last four.
Both Bok and Bacina admitted their teams played poorly in the first half of what on the overall was a drab cup tie.
“The problem for us in the first half was that we could not keep possession of the ball,” lamented the Croat.
“The poor state of the pitch did not allow us to play our usual game. But it didn’t help SAFFC either, because they had more possession, but without creating many scoring chances.”
Bok agreed that his team could have done better, despite earning a victory that sent them another step closer to the only piece of silverware they have yet to win in the local game.
“It was a scrappy game, especially in the first half,” he admitted in his post-match interview.
“Inui’s delivery on set-plays wasn’t that good in that period, but it was better for us in the second half.
“We had a few chances, but couldn’t find a goal until very late on.”