Victory at Yishun sets Home up for late charge
Photography courtesy of Home United
Home United kept their slim S.League championship hopes alive when their soak-and-strike strategy paid rich dividends in a 3-0 away win over Malaysia’s Harimau Muda at Yishun Stadium on Saturday evening.
A brace from leading scorer Frederic Mendy and an injury-time goal from substitute Indra Sahdan Daud ensured the Protectors leapfrogged their opponents to fourth place in the standings.
Qiu Li, so often the scourge of Malaysian sides in recent years, was the key contributor again in this match, having a hand in all three Home goals as his team stayed seven points behind league leaders Tampines Rovers.
But big questions emerged for the Harimau Muda at the end of the evening, as their second defeat at Home’s hands left them ten points off the pace amid reports of them seeking a tougher challenge outside Asia.
The claims came as Ong Kim Swee, coach of the Young Tigers, noted how his charges could have won the league title had they had their best players throughout the campaign.
Ong certainly came close to fielding a full-strength side on this occasion at Yishun, but Home were without suspended defender Sofiyan Abdul Hamid, and had Rosman Sulaiman and Franklin Anzite ruled out through injury.
With his rearguard options severely limited, Protectors head coach Lee Lim Saeng opted to field utility man Masrezwan Masturi as sweeper in a five-man defensive structure chosen to counter any threat the speedy young Malaysians would pose.
That strategy was tested from the start when Lionel Lewis had to be very alert to make two huge clearances in the box before Harimau Muda striker Thamil Arasu could pounce.
At the other end, Singapore international Qiu was Home’s main inspiration up front as they mustered a few probing counterattacks they launched, going close twice in the opening moments.
The match gradually evolved into a mini-battle between the two No.16s, as Qiu and his Malaysian counterpart Wan Zack Haikal sought to impose themselves on the game.
Wan Zack released himself from marker Jeremy Chiang’s tight shackling after a quiet first 15 minutes and started orchestrating attacks on the Home rearguard.
Thrice the 21-year-old played a part in his side coming agonisingly close to taking the lead.
He first laid the ball up for Irfan Fazail on the half-hour mark, only for the latter to blast his 35-yard effort way over.
Wan Zack then cut in on the right moments later before producing a shot from outside the box that went just past Home’s left post, and then saw a powerful drive on the edge tipped away by Lewis.
The Young Tigers were dominating the action, but the goals were not coming, a sure sign of danger on the horizon.
And that danger materialised 37 minutes in, when Mendy nodded home off a Qiu corner on the left to give the visitors the lead against the run of play.
Stunned by the sucker punch, the Harimau Muda came out all guns blazing in the second half, with skipper Mahalli Jasuli pushing further forward to provide support on the right and Wan Zack moving to the left to punch past wingback Firdaus Idros.
Despite facing increasing pressure from the home side, Home went further ahead seven minutes after the break.
In another swift counterattacking move, Qiu beat one yellow shirt on the left and sped past another to set up a low cross to Mendy inside the box.
After selling a feint that had Harimau Muda goalkeeper Izham Tarmizi Roslan wrongfooted, the former Etoile FC sharpshooter needed no second invitation to knock the ball into an empty net.
The reaction from Ong was swift, as an ineffective Thamil was replaced by a more combative D. Saarvindran to provide more bite and graft in attack.
Home took some rough punishment as they protected their lead amidst intense Harimau Muda bombardment, but they remembered to give as hard as they got.
Shi Jiayi and Masrezwan – who performed exceptionally solidly at the back with his calmness and wisdom – bore the brunt of hard Malaysian challenges and had to be replaced by Indra and Rhysh Roshan Rai respectively.
With more yellow shirts committed to attack, Qiu and Mendy took advantage of the holes opening up to threaten twice in the space of a minute.
The latter, in particular, was guilty of missing a chance to seize a hat-trick with three minutes to play when he mistimed his acrobatic volley at the far post off an Indra cross.
Harimau Muda leftback Affize Faisal then forced two saves off Lewis in injury time, first with a 40-yard drive, and then from a direct free kick on the right.
But the Protectors killed off any hopes of salvation for the hosts when Indra headed in off a cross from Mendy in a swift attacking move that was initiated by Qiu.
Lee was delighted with the final result and spoke glowingly on his Home players’ performance in a battle that reignited their title aspirations with four matches remaining.
“I’d like to congratulate my players for the result,” said the Korean.
“They put in a lot of effort and more importantly, 100 percent heart into the game.
“The Harimau Muda are a young team who also worked very hard tonight, but we took advantage and got into their open spaces to score.
“In football, in some games we have more possession, while in other matches our opponents dominated possession. But having more of the ball doesn’t mean the team will always win matches.
“It is the team that scores first that will have the advantage, and we scored first today. The second goal was crucial, while we netted the third goal after our opponents gave up on themselves.”
Ong meanwhile refuted suggestions that his Harimau Muda team had lost focus in this game, but showed hints of sarcasm as he examined the defeat.
“We lost to a very experienced team who knew how to kill us through set-pieces and counterattacks whenever they had the ball,” he lamented.
“Home defended very well with a back eight, and we found it tough to break them down. They had six foreign players who were experienced and didn’t want to lose against boys in this match.
“My players got very frustrated and committed silly mistakes, especially with our defence that got out of shape too easily when we started attacking.”
The Malacca-born coach admitted it was back to the drawing board for his side as they look to seal a top-five finish, the target he had set at the start of their maiden Singapore campaign.
“We lacked ideas in this game, and now we have to think of how to get our confidence back for the next game,” he remarked.
“We have been playing very good football throughout this season, so what we need to do now is to be more consistent in our remaining matches.”