So when Hougang United and Albirex Niigata (Singapore) play the second leg of their tie at Hougang Stadium on Friday evening, they will be fighting for the privilege of facing four-time winners Home, a prospect which should make both teams even keener to progress to that November showdown at Jalan Besar.
For Hougang that prospect might have been unthinkable in previous seasons, when a team of what perhaps may be unfairly regarded as lesser lights tried to survive for most of their S.League campaigns and aim for the modest target of avoiding the wooden spoon.
Cup glory was usually seen as a bridge too far for them to cross.
Now, tantalisingly, having already featured in the League Cup final as runners-up to Albirex, the newly-branded Cheetahs know at least that they cannot lose a final twice to the same opponents in the same season.
Better yet, they can atone for their unfortunate League Cup loss on penalties against the White Swans by knocking them out at the semifinals stage of this competition and gird their loins for a battle royale in the final against the Protectors.
It is not going to be easy, of course, with Albirex showing superb form, defeated only twice in the league since the middle of May, beaten 0-1 by Geylang United and 1-2 by SAFFC, both games on the grounds of their opponents.
In cup competitions, meanwhile, they remain unbeaten.
What the Japanese will be aware of is that they have already lost once on the Hougang Stadium pitch to the
Cheetahs this season, in a game they would not have any happy memories about.
That 0-1 loss included some decisions by the match officials that rankled with coach Koichi Sugiyama and his players, whose black looks on their faces told the tale.
That they were beaten by a Hougang side reduced to ten men by the time defender Ratna Suffian struck the only goal made defeat even harder to swallow.
Now they have the chance to put that behind them, but first Hougang have to be beaten this time, although with two key players serving one-match suspensions, it would seem a trifle easier.
Hougang came from two goals down in the first leg to snatch a 2-2 draw on Tuesday to set this coming clash up as a virtual single-match decider.
But they lost captain Shariff Abdul Samat and playmaker Carlos Delgado in the bargain, and one would imagine those men will be sorely missed by the home team.
They will be looking to the other players to produce a real team effort, especially with their captain missing.
‘We’ll probably bring Ratna back in place of Shariff,” Hougang coach Aide Iskandar said, immediately after his team’s fighting first-leg performance.
Aide has depth in his squad at last, with a number of players with vast experience ready to play the game of their lives on Friday, after Diego Gama de Oliveira was passed fit and got himself involved in a big way in the team’s last two matches.
But Albirex do not have any suspensions, and they may even have a stronger side to choose from, as there is a chance striker Yosuke Saito will be able to take his place in the team once again after missing several recent matches through injury.
The player’s coach expressed some confidence about his availability when speaking to sleague.com on the eve of the match.
“Saito has been recovering well, and he trained with us this evening without any problems,” the astute Sugiyama disclosed.
“I can’t say if he will play, but he should be available for selection.”
That would mean the White Swans’ reliance on flamboyant half-Brazilian Bruno Suzuki Castanheira to plough the same furrow for a full 90 minutes could be at least relieved in some small measure by the inclusion of Saito as a possible alternative.
Or, if Sugiyama decides tactically that he might even start Saito and keep Castanheira in reserve, especially if the game moves into extra time, the value of his No.9 being around again should not be underestimated.
Of course, brilliant midfielder Tatsuro Inui is sure to play a major part in the match, as is club top scorer
Shotaro Ihata, who has notched an impressive 17 goals in the S.League, with two additional strikes in the RHB Singapore Cup.
It is hard to see how a Hougang side without Delgado and Shariff can beat the effervescent White Swans, but this is cup football and anything can happen.
Aide was quick to point out that he would expect his other players to lift their game even more than they did in their sensational second-half performance at Jurong East.
Having survived a torrid first half-hour, when it seemed Albirex had the game by the throat and Hougang at their mercy, a moment of misery in first-half stoppage-time saw the Cheetahs peg their hosts back to 2-1 at half-time, and a second-half revival meant Albirex had to settle for an unlikely 2-2 draw by the finish.
Getting some compensation for being sent off in the S.League game at Hougang Stadium the last time the two teams met there, defender Syaqir Sulaiman headed in a goal ten minutes from time to ensure there would be everything to play for in the second leg.
And home soil may mean something for once, despite the common perception that home advantage does not really exist in Singapore, mainly as travelling is insignificant and boisterous home support is rarely a factor.
The latter could well be relevant here, however, as the ‘Hools’, as the Hougang supporters like to describe themselves, are often said by the players they support to be worth a goal to them in every game they play.
This was never more evident than in the first leg where, attacking the goal at the end where their rowdy supporters were gathered, Hougang appeared to step up another gear as their fans roared them on.
At home they will be asking for a similar level of support, if not even more, possibly giving the lie to the myth that there is no home advantage in the S.League, or indeed in the RHB Singapore Cup.
Another element to consider could be the pitch.
When Hougang travelled to Jurong East on Tuesday they were playing a team that had carried all before them at home this year, in stark contrast to last season, when they failed to win once in front of their own fans.
The White Swans have not lost at home since March and have been largely untroubled ever since.
Returning to Jurong East after a four-game away stretch, they found their normally dry pitch sodden, after steady rain earlier in the day.
They appeared jaded towards the end and lacked the sparkle they produced in the first part of the match.
The heavy pitch and a full schedule may have taken its toll, as they had managed only a 1-1 draw with the Courts Young Lions six days earlier.
Sugiyama, however, did not feel that the condition of the pitch played much part in his side’s second-half showing.
“We like playing on a heavy pitch,” he said on Thursday evening.
“It’s easier for us to play our passing game as the ball holds up better, so a wet pitch at Hougang will suit us,” he maintained.
So this is a match that sees both sides looking for positives to draw upon, and a chance to sort out some old scores left unsettled in previous contests.
Will there be an all-Singapore team final at last after two consecutive years of foreign involvement? Or will
Albirex become the first side ever to contest two cup finals in the same year since the Singapore Cup was inaugurated in 1998?
Either way, both sets of supporters will surely want to raise the roof once more and lift their team to Cup glory. - (SOURCE)