SAFFC will have to wait for yet another year to lay their hands on the League Cup, after they were sent crashing out of the competition on Friday evening by Hougang United, who came back from a goal behind to seal progress into the semifinals.
Indra Sahdan Daud scored late in the first half to delight the Warriors fans gathered at Choa Chu Kang Stadium, only for Jordan Webb to cancel his strike out on 53 minutes.
Basit Abdul Hamid then continued his rise in the local game by breaking the deadlock in extra time.
It was a tough way to end SAFFC’s interest in this year’s tournament, after they were given a bye into the quarterfinals by virtue of their top-five placing in the S.League last season.
Hougang on the other hand were made to slog through the preliminary round, where they had overcome Woodlands Wellington 2-0 just three days prior to this match.
That did not stop them from enjoying a near-perfect start, when SAFFC midfielder Goran Subara half-cleared a cross by Mohd Noor Ali from the right eight minutes in and Carlos Delgado pounced with a sweet half-volley that forced a flying save out of Hyrulnizam Juma’at.
A penalty claim by Mislav Karoglan off a challenge by Shariff Abdul Samat moments later almost sparked a verbal war, and only some quick intervention from referee Leow Thiam Hoe defused the situation.
The affair was nonetheless tense, and one could cut the air at the stadium with a knife when SAFFC were awarded a free kick on the edge of the box on 36 minutes for a foul on Indra.
The No.17 and strike partner Karoglan stood over the ball to leave the Hougang wall wondering who would take it, but when the latter ran over it and pulled a clean dummy, Indra was perfectly-poised to send a beautiful curler beyond the well-beaten Fadhil Salim.
The next five minutes proved nervy for Fadhil, as he almost got punished when a through ball from behind the halfway line caught him on two minds. Karoglan exploited the goalkeeper’s hesitation to get to the ball first, but his weak effort was cleared off the line by Shahril Alias.
Delgado had a chance to repeat his dead-ball heroics from his last visit to Choa Chu Kang when Shariff won a free kick in a promising position, but this time Hyrulnizam proved a tougher man to beat with another magnificent save.
The goalkeeper put together a great display in a rare start for the Warriors, and they almost doubled their lead just before the break when Taisuke Akiyoshi looked to be through on goal from the left.
But Hougang played a compact “one goes, one covers” defensive system, making it impossible for Akiyoshi to advance further.
Things were shaping up rather evenly as Razaleigh Khalik put in a smart challenge to deny Webb minutes into the second half, which was livelier than the first as both teams came out firing.
It was a matter of time before Hougang would score, though, and they did so on 53 minutes thanks to another clever Delgado pass that bisected the SAFFC defence.
Subara decided to let the ball roll past him as Webb was lurking nearby, yet the Australian somehow got in Hyrulnizam’s way as a collision involving the two allowed the Hougang forward the easiest of chances to equalise.
The Hougang fans went wild, although they might not have taken too kindly to referee Leow and his assistants thereafter as no fewer than eight players got into the book, five of them from the visiting team.
ndra, however, did his best to remind everyone in the stands that football is firstly about goals when he executed an acrobatic overhead kick that went just wide of Fadhil’s left-hand post.
Taking the hint, Hougang winger Fazli Jaffar combined with the ever-impressive Azhar Sairudin to force Hyrulnizam into yet another top-class save, before Sobrie Mazelan and former Warriors skipper Noor Ali fluffed their lines for the Cheetahs as well.
Sensing that SAFFC could be beaten, Aide threw Basit on with ten minutes left in normal time, and the switch proved profitable in the additional 30 minutes that followed.
A defence-splitting pass on 102 minutes that again left Subara flat-footed allowed the 24-year-old to race through and meet schoolmate Hyrulnizam. Rounding him coolly before slotting the ball into an empty net, Basit promptly became the toast of Hougang as he sent them into the semifinals with SAFFC unable to conjure a response.
Hyrulnizam was left particularly sore as he spoke to sleague.com afterwards, noting that he had been looking forward to a longer League Cup run with the team as understudy to regular custodian Shahril Jantan.
“I guess my opportunities don’t come easy, and the League Cup is the one tournament which I would be playing in,” noted the former Young Lions trainee.
“I think I need to improve on my one-on-ones with the attackers, as both goals were from that kind of situation.”
Possibly the worst part of the game for Hyrulnizam was the fact that it was Basit of all people who had beaten him for the winner.
“Now that my schoolmate’s scored against me, I do not know how to face him when I see him in school during our breaks,” he said, forcing a joke.
SAFFC head coach Richard Bok was meanwhile more complimentary, noting that Hougang deserved the win as they played with more drive and hunger and did well closing off his chief striker Karoglan.
“We did whatever we could, and I would like to congratulate Hougang for going through to the semifinals,” said the 41-year-old.
“They worked very hard for this win. We had our chances but we couldn’t finish. Kari was very tightly marked in the game, good job to Hougang for keeping it tight against him.
“For us, we are done with the League Cup, we have no luck with it. We will now shift our focus onto the S.League and the Singapore Cup.”
Hougang head coach Aide Iskandar paid tribute to all his charges, mentioning that it was most pleasing to see the team play and fight for each other on the pitch.
“I am happy with the team that I’ve assembled,” he declared.
“Collectively, we are playing as a unit. Despite the injuries and suspensions, everyone who was called upon did really well and performed to my expectations.
“We need everyone’s effort this year, including the reserves on the bench. We are not relying on any individual player to win the games; we are looking at a team as a whole.”
Aide stressed the need not to take anything for granted, despite Hougang reaching the semifinals for the second consecutive season, having first done so under their old name Sengkang Punggol.
“I told the boys that I hope to do better than last year, but we have to respect Home United because they beat the defending champions yesterday evening,” said the former Protectors stalwart.
“The game against Home United will be our third game in seven days. The main objective now is to get the boys recovered in the shortest time, and choosing the right players to play against the Protectors.”
As much as he might be playing down talk of a meeting with his old club, Aide clearly had the look of a man who actually thinks he can upset the odds not once but twice by pulling off a positive result at Bishan, going so far as to remind everyone he spoke to that “nothing is impossible”.
Will this be Hougang’s year? He seems to think so. -(SOURCE)