Croissant denies ten-man Hougang victory
Despite playing more than two-thirds of their match against Tampines Rovers with only ten men, Hougang United came within minutes of leaving Clementi Stadium with all three points on Sunday evening.
But a debatable decision from referee Sukhbir Singh and a goal from Benoit Croissant seconds later gave the hosts the lifeline they needed as the two teams played out a 1-1 draw.
A foul was not called on Fahrudin Mustafic as he rose over Hougang defender Basit Abdul Hamid for a header deep into injury time in the second half.
His attempt was clawed away by Fadhil Salim, but Croissant popped up with the equalising strike as he turned in the rebound.
Earlier, Hougang had lost Azhar Sairudin on 26 minutes under far less contentious conditions, after the midfielder was flashed a straight red card for a stomp on Ali Hudzaifi.
However, Hougang scored against the run of play on the stroke of half-time, Mamadou Diallo lifting a free kick over the Tampines wall and into the back of the net.
Despite the numerical disadvantage, the Cheetahs almost secured three unlikely points against the reigning S.League champions as they defended stoutly in the second half to repel wave after wave of Tampines attacks.
That they had to settle for just one was something their head coach Nenad Bacina was slightly rueful about, but given their output over the last three games he was ready to content himself with the return this time, an improvement over earlier back-to-back losses.
“This one was a good opportunity to collect three points,” acknowledged the Croatian on the game.
“I would like to congratulate my players for their effort on the pitch, as they played with ten men for 60 minutes. They played their hearts out and according to plan.
“We couldn’t expect to create anything up front in the second half, as Tampines will score goals if we gave them space, so we defended. I think we did well on defence.
“We are a lucky team today, but not lucky enough. Maybe with that one more percent of luck, we’ll collect three points another time.”
With the draw, Hougang remain seventh in the league table, behind Tampines on goal difference.
An outright victory could have given them fifth place, as Albirex Niigata (Singapore) lost 2-4 to new league leaders Home United in a concurrent fixture and would have dropped behind them on goal difference.
The start of the match played out slowly both teams seemed cautious of the treacherously slippery Clementi Stadium field, and the early chances mainly fell the hosts’ way as Sazali Salleh dragged a shot from distance wide.
On 23 minutes, Tampines winger Jamil Ali caught the Hougang defence napping, as he beat the offside trap before doing well to stay on his feet after Fadhil tripped him while he attempted to round the 29-year-old.
But with the gaping goal in front of him, Jamil – who turns 29 himself in September – contrived to curl his shot wide, much to the horror of the home fans.
To compound his misery, that was the last thing he could do for the evening, as an injury caused by the move prompted his replacement by young forward Fazil Zailani.
At least Fazil was able to come in for Jamil; Hougang had no such luck three minutes later when Azhar was ordered off the field for a moment of madness after he was challenged by Hudzaifi on the edge of the Tampines penalty area.
Hudzaifi’s sliding tackle meant Hougang had the free kick, but Azhar’s angry stomp on the 20-year-old gave the referee little choice but to send him off.
With Diallo’s free kick attempt saved, Tampines started to seek the breakthrough as chances began to appear.
An Aleksandar Duric attempt from inside the area after a swift turn was held by Fadhil, before Hasree Zais saved off the line from Gligor Gligorov’s shot on goal on 40 minutes.
Still, despite having the numerical advantage, the Stags were not able to really impose themselves on the game as they would have liked, as they often lost the ball in their opponents’ half.
And that failure to hold on to the ball was punished just before half-time.
Hougang got a free kick when Tampines goalkeeper Sasa Dreven was adjudged to have held on to the ball outside the penalty area as he punted up field after he collected a corner.
The Cheetahs capitalised on it brilliantly, Diallo calmly lifting the ball over the wall and into the left corner of the goal to give Hougang the unlikely lead.
Knowing this was as far as they could reasonably go in what was expected to be a torrid second half, the visitors set up camp in their own half as they gave Tampines a clear signal that they were content to defend.
And defend they really did!
The back four truly deserved credit for the way they endured wave upon wave of Tampines attacks. Mustafic had a free kick kept out by Fadhil’s legs, while Croissant volleyed over after a knockdown had put him in a great position to score just after the hour mark.
Hougang relied on the counterattack in the second period when they could, and while they tested Dreven on a couple of occasions, they were unable to seriously threaten another goal.
At the other end, Fazil blasted over with time winding down after a goalmouth scramble that saw an earlier shot hit the post, while Gligorov’s attempt on goal soon after was held well by Fadhil.
Mustafic also had a header cleared off the line as Hougang looked to have secured an improbable three points, as the fourth official indicated five minutes of injury time.
But five minutes was enough for Tampines to pull the proverbial rabbit, something they are quickly becoming good at when playing at Clementi.
There was still time for Mustafic to blast a free kick over, before the game was brought to a close.
With his side having so many chances to win the game, Tampines head coach Steven Tan bemoaned his side’s profligate showing in front of goal as they recorded their second draw of the campaign.
“If we count the chances we have, it is not a fair result,” said the former Singapore international.
“We were pushing towards the end of the last 20 or 30 minutes. They wanted to stop our rhythm, but credit to the boys for never giving up and scoring the goal in the last minute.
“However, the performance definitely could be better. We could have beaten them with the chances we had.
“Still, one point is better than no points. We could have just as easily lost the game.”