Hougang United defied the odds to storm back from two goals down against Albirex Niigata (Singapore), drawing 2-2 at Jurong East Stadium on Tuesday evening to bring well-deserved parity back to Hougang Stadium for the second leg of the RHB Singapore Cup 2011 semifinals tie.
Many were expecting the League Cup champions to sweep Hougang aside at Jurong East, and it certainly looked like the script would be followed in the opening minutes.
The White Swans took a 2-0 lead in the opening 30 minutes when defender Norihiro Kawakami scored from two corners, and they seemed good for more as they dominated possession while playing in Hougang’s half.
However, a goal by Sobrie Mazelan just before half-time changed all that, the forward capitalising on some slack defending from Kawakami of all people to halve the deficit.
Momentum followed the visitors into the second half, and although they were made to wait, the equaliser came ten minutes before the final whistle with Syaqir Sulaiman squeezing in Mohd Noor Ali’s corner to give Aide Iskandar’s side a 2-2 draw.
“I am definitely happy with the result,” said the Hougang coach.
“To have this kind of result against Albirex is really a good comeback from the team. We could have done better on the corners, but I have to really give credit to the boys. They never gave up and you can see they really wanted to win this game.
“Overall, I think 2-2 is a fair result.”
The home side were extremely quick off the blocks as they immediately settled into the passing game that they are so famous for. That did not suit Hougang, as they struggled to find the rhythm in their game and failed to get possession in the opening minutes.
Albirex were playing in Hougang’s half with exquisite passing movement around the goal, and it was not long before they took full advantage of all that possession. Following Kazuki Kobayashi’s wayward effort from distance and Shimpei Sakurada’s header going wide, Kawakami showed his teammates the way on 14 minutes.
A Tatsuro Inui corner was headed back across goal by Kunihiro Yamashita to his defensive partner, who stabbed home from close range.
Aide brought Sobrie on for Ratna Suffian on 23 minutes in an attempt to shake things up, but despite the change, the Cheetahs did not come to life and continued to be second best on the field.
Bruno Suzuki Castanheira forced Fadhil Salim into action after Noor Ali’s failed clearance fell kindly for him, before Inui went close with a flash across goal.
Hougang only mustered their first attack around the time of Sobrie’s entry, when Diego Gama de Oliveira was put through on goal by Carlos Delgado, but the Brazilian failed to keep the ball under control and allowed it to slip into the waiting arms of Yoshito Matsushita.
The visitors then failed to clear another corner on the half-hour mark, and Kawakami duly pounced to make it 2-0 to Albirex.
This time, the goal did wake the visitors up a bit, and they managed to launch some credible attacks. Jordan Webb went close to turning in Noor Ali’s free kick before Oliveira headed just wide from the winger’s cross.
With half-time looming, they finally got the goal they were looking for. A lack of concentration from Kawakami allowed substitute Sobrie to take the ball, and the 26-year-old made no mistake with only the goalkeeper to beat.
After the restart, the Cheetahs started looking the better side, clearly hungrier as they asked plenty of questions of the Albirex defence.
Delgado’s direct free kick on 54 minutes needed the attention of Matsushita as it was heading for the bottom corner, before Noor Ali forced another save out of the Albirex custodian.
At the other end, Albirex threatened too, with Castanheira hitting the post from the right side of the penalty area.
Unlike in the first half, where the White Swans dominated possession, the ball was firmly spread between the two teams, but it was Hougang that would make full use of their second-half chances.
After sustained pressure where they knocked very hard on their hosts’ door, they finally found the elusive equaliser with 80 minutes gone when Syaqir flashed Noor Ali’s corner into goal at the near post.
The pressure then shifted back to Albirex as they tried to find a winner. They almost did on 88 minutes when Sakurada waltzed past the Hougang defence and into the area, but his ball across the goalmouth was not met by the usually-deadly Shotaro Ihata.
So 2-2 the scores stayed, but it was definitely Hougang that emerged the happier of the two clubs.
Albirex head coach Koichi Sugiyama admitted that the turning point of the match was when his team conceded the first goal at the end of the first half.
“We were controlling the game and looking for the third goal, so that was a really crucial moment in the match,” said the 39-year-old.
“We could not get the third goal, and instead we made the mistake that conceded the first goal. That was when we lost our momentum, and it carried over to second half and we could not pick up the pace.
“In the next game, though, we will be confident of getting a result even though we’re playing away.”
The two teams next face each other on Friday at Hougang for the second leg, a place where the Cheetahs have generally done well this season.
But while they are in front of their home fans, Hougang will be without two influential players. Captain Shariff Abdul Samat and playmaker Delgado will both be unavailable for selection as they picked up their second yellow cards of the competition, which means each must serve a one-match suspension.
Aide realised the impact of this loss, expressing hope that their replacements will step up.
“It is up to the players, as we will be missing the two key players,” said the former Singapore skipper.
“Players like Eddie (Chang), Ratna and Fazli (Jaffar) will all have to play a part in the match. For now, we have to recover as soon as possible and start preparing for the match on Friday.
“Today’s result will definitely give a great boost for the second leg. We are just one step to the final, and we just have to hope for a good performance.” -(SOURCE)