Friday night’s RHB Singapore Cup semifinals second-leg match between Hougang United and Albirex Niigata (Singapore) was a game that had everything.
It was a five-goal thriller, finally settled 117 minutes into a spine-tingling encounter that will be talked about for a long time to come, not only by those present in the stands and the players, but by those watching at home on television who got superb value for money.
There were five goals, four of them by substitutes, a controversial opener decided on an assistant referee’s call, a saved penalty, a late sending-off for the first goalscorer and a performance from both teams that drew high praise from their respective coaches.
Albirex had led from a Shotaro Ihata goal a minute before half-time, at a time when Hougang’s depleted side had looked set to head into the dressing room intact after an evenly-contested first 45 minutes.
The goal, which followed a typical Tatsuro Inui corner on the left, resulted when Ihata at the near post directed his header towards the top right corner of the net with some power, but where Cheetahs defender
Lau Meng Meng was standing sentry on the line ready to clear the ball.
Instinctively, the Hougang man got his head to the ball to deny the goal, but the assistant raised his flag to indicate that the ball had crossed the line before Lau had got to it and referee Abdul Malik Bashir agreed, handing the White Swans a valuable 1-0 lead.
There had been no shortage of goalmouth action in that opening period, and the pressure on both defences was relentless throughout, even as the game later moved into extra time.
There were heroes and villains, as there are in any game, but nobody present could fault any of those taking part for not giving 100 percent.
Although his side had been beaten eventually by a 2-3 margin, Hougang coach Aide Iskandar was full of praise for his men.
“Considering we had two players suspended and only two of our five foreigners out there, compared to our opponents who had eleven of them, I thought we did really well and I could not be prouder of the lads,” he said.
“Both our substitutes scored tonight and everybody stepped up to cover for players who wee missing.”
Aide was referring to Basit Abdul Hamid, who had replaced Brazilian Diego de Oliveira on 71 minutes and burst the net for a crucial equaliser seven minutes later.
Then there was Sobrie Mazelan, who had come on for Fazli Jaffar early in the second half and netted a second equaliser five minutes from the end of extra time.
Sadly for Sobrie, that was not enough to propel his side to a winner or even a penalty-taking decider, as Albirex substitute Yosuke Saito scored his second of the match with three minutes to go, having already given his side the lead a second time six minutes into the added period.
Saito had been absent from the first-leg affair at Jurong East, having picked up an injury in his team’s 7-2 win over Etoile at Queenstown Stadium two weeks earlier, but after a solid training session the day before the second leg he was flung into the fray on 85 minutes and did not disappoint.
Albirex, though, will have to play the final in November without their top scorer Ihata, who was shown a straight red card after lashing out at Fathi Yunus following a late tackle by the Hougang man, which incidentally had already earned the White Swans a free kick on 98 minutes.
It was out of character for the talismanic striker, who looked on fire from the opening whistle and led the Hougang defence on a merry chase for much of the game.
His many attempts on goal, after getting into good positions, had been thwarted by dogged defending by the Cheetahs, who were missing skipper Shariff Abdul Samat and midfield supremo Carlos Delgado.
Bruno Suzuki Castanheira also rocked the Hougang crossbar on 18 minutes from close range, while fullback Ryuta Hayashi had to be at his best to clear off the line at the other end in the ninth minute when Ratna Suffian got a header on target, as has been his custom many times already this season.
Oliveira also went close a number of times, with his lack of match fitness probably letting him down after such a long layoff as he spurned chances at close range that he might have been expected to convert if fully fit.
A handball by Kazuki Kobayashi on the hour mark presented Hougang with their first chance to level the scores after going 0-1 down, but acting captain Mohd Noor Ali, who produced a performance that belied his advanced years, could not beat Yoshito Matsushita with his spot-kick as the Japanese goalkeeper guessed correctly, diving to his left.
Despite that letoff, Albirex succumbed to an equaliser anyway, though it came in bizarre circumstances.
Matsushita appeared to play the ball twice after collecting it from an opponent, and an alert Malik awarded an indirect free kick inside the penalty area.
With all of the Albirex players stationed on the line there was very little for any Hougang taker to aim at, and when the ball was slipped to Basit few would have expected the well-built 24-year-old to find any gaps.
That he certainly did, with a powerful low shot that nearly brought the house down, at the very same end where Albirex had opened the scoring in remarkable fashion at the tail end of the first half.
The game still had many twists and turns to offer spectators even then, with Saito coming on for Castanheira, as he so often does, and managing a true cameo role in the game, with two fine and decisive goals.
Six minutes after extra time got underway, Shimpei Sakurada, who had directed a Saito pass across the face of goal four minutes earlier, provided a wonderful through pass for the now-recovered forward to give the Hougang defence the go-by down the right.
Saito, full of confidence, raced away to tuck the ball under Ridzuan Fatah Hassan, who had come into the side after regular custodian Fadhil Salim had withdrawn from the team with a complaint of ‘sore eyes’ according to his coach.
“I thought Ridzuan did well, coming into the side today,” said Aide, happy with the reserve goalkeeper’s alertness that had kept Albirex at bay for long periods.
Hougang, having fallen behind for the second time, could have levelled again on 100 minutes, but from a lovely cross from the right by Noor Ali, the late-arriving Sobrie could not get there in time to steer the ball into the net.
The 26-year-old, however, made amends 15 minutes later with a low shot through a crowded goalmouth after a ball had been cleared out of the penalty area following a Noor Ali corner on the left.
But Hougang’s joy and potential relief was short-lived as Saito took full advantage of a lovely piece of vision by Atsushi Shimono whose pass to the right set the No.9 free.
The substitute did not let his followers down, slamming the ball low past Ridzuan to seal the match 3-2 to round off a 5-4 aggregate victory.
Winning coach Koichi Sugiyama had mixed feelings after the game, praising his players while saving some sympathy for his red-carded striker.
“He will learn from this experience,” said an even-tempered Sugiyama.
“Everyone in the team played well, and it’s good to make another final after winning the League Cup.”
The loss of Ihata for the final is a real blow, but the White Swans have a fine disciplinary record and so will have every other player available, barring injury, for the November event.
Hougang still have plenty to play for, according to their coach.
“We want the bronze medal now, and we will keep working towards that, as getting third place will mean a lot to this club,” stressed Aide.
“I think we have the lowest budget in the S.League, so we should all be very proud of this team.”-(SOURCE)