An electrically charged atmosphere permeated the Hougang Stadium stands on Tuesday evening for the first leg of the RHB Singapore Cup quarterfinals tie between Hougang United and Myanmar’s Okkthar United.
With the Myanmarese support numbering in the hundreds in the main stand and providing waves upon waves of reverberating cheers for their countrymen, Okkthar showed plenty of spirit on the field as well as they battled the Cheetahs tooth and nail.
Ultimately, though, they still could not ride on the wave of raucous euphoria, succumbing to a debilitating 0-3 loss.
But it was not for want of effort; the outstanding work rate of the northerners was exemplary, but the polished finish eluded them as they missed an abundance of opportunities, particularly in the first half.
Hougang’s Cheetahs pounced on 26 minutes, arguably against the run of play, before scoring again on 71 minutes to go 2-0 up.
The final goal in injury time was, by all accounts, a hammer blow to the recovery hopes that lingered for PN Sivaji’s side.
Still, the former Singapore national coach oozed his trademark calm composure, as he replied in measured tone as to whether the task ahead was now insurmountable.
“Nothing is insurmountable; we will make a fight of it this Friday at Jalan Besar,” he said with a tone of self-assured courage.
Sivaji then went on to comment that the loss was down to the inexperience of the team, not all that unusual given the number of teenagers in the squad.
In fact two of them had started, defender Nyi Nyi Aung and midfielder Kyaw Zay Ya, the latter turning 17 only later this week.
Many were otherwise promising talents, with the odd former international thrown into the mix, and Okkthar’s policy of grooming talent rather than snapping up established stars meant errors on the field were always going to be part of the process.
“They were not in the right position when the goals were scored,” elaborated Sivaji.
“We needed composure; composure comes over games (and) this is a newly-formed side. It’s not something you can just buy off the shelf.
“Still, they played beyond my expectations, they played at high intensity and aggressively. We should have finished off the chances we created.”
Indeed, the chances that came Okkthar’s way could have been finished off to become great goals.
On 23 minutes, star striker Jean Roger Lappe Lappe missed a low cross from the right when he failed to connect to teammate Hla Tu Aung’s cross inside the six-yard box.
Three minutes later Hougang’s Jordan Webb came from the same direction at the other end, a similar low try from six yards by the Cheetahs’ key player met by the sliding effort of Okkthar skipper Edesio Sergio Junior, who unwittingly placed the ball into his own net.
Admittedly it was cruel for the visitors, having done so well to press Hougang in a hard but fair manner.
But with seasoned winger Mohd Noor Ali and roving striker Webb pairing up well for the Cheetahs, the attacks came fast and furious against Okkthar as the middle and right zones were exploited by Hougang in their attempts to break down the opposition’s defensive resistance.
Just before half-time, Okkthar left their fans in disbelief after a miss of telling proportions.
Midfielder Hla sprinted down the right and threaded an impeccable low pass to compatriot Aung Moe deep inside the Hougang box, but Aung made a complete hash of his shot as he uncannily blasted over some two yards away from Fadhil Salim’s goal.
It was a moment they would rue as the miss denied them the equaliser just before the break, and that likely drained away at the players’ confidence levels as a result.
Hougang took their tally to two come 71 minutes, after a corner on the right was drilled short to Noor Ali at the edge of the penalty box.
The 36-year-old dashed forward and, with a sweet left-footed curler, saw the ball arc neatly into the far left corner of Pierre Djanal’s goal.
Try as they might, the Myanmar side were found wanting at the final hurdle. Ten minutes from the end, Aung was again presented the ball from off a defensive clearance, yet standing at just eight yards out from goal, the 23-year-old only managed a tame flick that went straight at Fadhil.
The Cheetahs then determinedly sought a third strike to seal the goal advantage heading into Friday’s second-leg encounter at Jalan Besar Stadium.
Webb blazed down the right, feinted his marker and fashioned a curler much like Noor Ali’s earlier goalbound effort, but this time the leather bobbled just past Djanal’s right stick.
Going into the final straight, during the fourth minute of the four added for injury time, Hougang pounced to build up the imperious lead they wanted.
The tandem of Webb and Noor Ali found themselves two-on-one in what by now was a porous Okkthar defensive line. Webb played a short ball to his partner as the duo pushed into the box with just one to beat, and the latter’s return pass resulted in a left-footed finish of singular precision from the Canadian.
With the 3-0 win to take to the second leg this Friday, Cheetahs coach Aide Iskandar must have been feeling cautiously optimistic as he ventured his thoughts post-match.
“It definitely was an exciting game,” he told sleague.com.
“They are a good defensive side, it was not easy to beat them.
“We meet again Friday – it is not over yet! We will put up a better performance then and make a collective effort to play well.” - (SOURCE)