Cheetahs Stun High-Flying White Swans
Written by: Ryan Low
The Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League title race has been thrown wide open after a much-changed Hougang United side came from behind to beat leaders Albirex Niigata (S) 2-1 at Hougang Stadium on Monday night.
Albirex had led through Ryota Nakai’s early penalty, but the Cheetahs produced a stunning comeback through goals from Pablo Rodriguez and Fairoz Hasan.
Having played three days ago, Hougang coach Philippe Aw made eight changes – leaving out several key players and put out a young line-up which had an average age of 22.7.
Spanish forward Rodriguez was also given a surprise start after not being selected for the last six matches.
Heads could have dropped after Albirex scored in the 10th minute, with Nakai slotting home from the spot after being fell by Atsushi Shirota in the area.
However, the young Cheetahs were not cowered and almost levelled matters right after the restart with Fairoz’s 20-yard snapshot coming off the crossbar.
They went close again on in the 25th minute with Rodriguez’s header off Faiz Salleh’s cross being tipped over by Albirex veteran custodian Yosuke Nozawa.
Aw’s side would grab a deserved equaliser a minute later, with Rodriguez nodding home Zulfahmi Arifin’s inswinging corner for his first goal in Hougang colours.
Albirex could have retaken the lead just before the break, but captain Shuto Inaba was denied by Hougang second-choice goalkeeper Ridhuan Barudin in a one-on-one situation.
It was all-square at half-time, with Hougang scoring again just two minutes after the restart to go 2-1 up.
Gareth Low’s deep cross from the left caused a defensive mix-up between Rui Kumada and Naofumi Tanaka, leading to Fairoz stealing to poke home gleefully into a gaping goal for his first goal since July 2015.
Albirex duly dominated the last 30 minutes but were unable to put their chances away, with top scorer Tsubasa Sano neutralised by the Hougang defence.
The White Swans had a golden opportunity to restore parity deep into injury time when Shoichiro Sakamoto wriggled his way through to goal, but Ridhuan made himself big to deny the former from point-blank range.
That sealed all three points for Hougang as they climbed a spot to fifth with 19 points from 12 matches.
Meanwhile Albirex are now just two points ahead of closest challengers Home United, after a second straight defeat.
Hougang United Head Coach Philippe Aw: “Everyone was saying we will lose this game, or thinking we will get whipped when we put out this line-up. But everyone in this team wants to show we got this fight in us to prove something.
“We got the win against Ceres-Negros FC in the Singapore Cup and we rode on that happy mood for our recent victory. We were on the rocks for the last 10 minutes with players going down on cramps, but thankfully we held on and the spirit of the boys was evident tonight.
“These young boys handled themselves very well and I’m also happy for Pablo; he finally broke his duck.”
Albirex Niigata (S) Head Coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga: “Of course I’m not happy after a second straight loss and it’s not good for our players’ morale, but we need to analyse and see what we need to improve instead of dwelling on the loss.
“We made a mistake for the second goal but these things happen. Also, we lost our centre-back (Yasutaka) Yanagi to suspension; the rest of the defenders cannot handle his height and that’s another problem for us.
“Now we need to correct our mistakes in the last two games and prepare for the League Cup.”
Hougang United: Ridhuan Barudin (GK, C), Faiz Salleh, Gerald Ting, Atsushi Shirota, Lionel Tan, Gareth Low (Nazrul Nazari 83’), Afiq Noor (Fabian Kwok 71’), Zulfahmi Arifin, Fairoz Hasan (Justin Hui 64’), Antoine Viterale, Pablo Rodriguez
Albirex Niigata (S): Yosuke Nozawa (GK), Hiroyoshi Kamata, Rui Kumada, Takuya Akiyama, Naofumi Tanaka, Shoichiro Sakamato, Shuto Inaba (C), Kento Nagasaki, Koki Sato, Ryota Nakai, Tsubasa Sano