Neo Chee Seong
Etoile FC exacted some small amount of revenge on Hougang United when early goals in each half helped set up a 3-1 victory at Queenstown Stadium on Monday evening.
The happiest man on the field, though, was Stars goalkeeper Antonin Trilles, who earned back some of the respectability that might have been lost in the team’ 2-7 hammering by Albirex Niigata (Singapore) last week.
The defending S.League champions welcomed back four players from suspension and international duty, and all four went straight into the starting eleven as coach Guglielmo Arena played a strong opening hand.
The Frenchmen got into action almost immediately, Hicham Bouchelmal creating the opening for the first goal after just six minutes.
Playing on the right side of a diamond midfield, Bouchemlal played a ball through to perfection, although some miscommunication in the Hougang backline had to take responsibility as Kamel Chaaouane was allowed to sneak in before tapping the ball home.
Aide Iskandar gave mid-season acquisition Eddie Chang a place in the starting eleven, and it took a little while before the former Courts Young Lions trainee could adjust himself to the game.
Once he did, though, he was bold enough to attempt a Rory Delap imitation with a long throw on 29 minutes that almost led to a goal.
Andrea Damiani was on the receiving end of that powerful hurl, and the Stars had skipper Trilles to thank as he acrobatically tipped the goalbound touch by Damiani over the bar to spare the defender’s blushes.
Off a counterattack from the resultant corner, Sirina Camara weaved and turned past Syaqir Sulaiman and got himself into a splendid goalscoring position, only to see his sweet lob over Fadhil from 15 yards out strike the upright instead of landing inside the net.
Hougang could have done better when Mohd Noor Ali won the ball in the middle of the park. Facing a three-on-two situation with Vitor Borges on his right and Fazli Jaffar on his left, the veteran midfielder tried playing a ball towards Fazli, only for Serge Souchon to foil his plan with a perfectly-timed tackle.
The visitors brought on Carlos Delgado, who had recently gone to hospital with a stomach bug and was deemed unfit to start. The Argentine, arriving on the scene on 36 minutes, almost provided an immediate impact.
Chasing a loose ball in midfield, the creative midfielder went on a good run before laying the ball off for Fazli Jaffar to play a cross in search of Borges, but some tight marking by Damiani ensured that Hougang would not get their equaliser.
Delgado then sent a 25-yard free kick straight into Trilles, after Souchon had conceded for a foul on Borges just outside the 18-yard box.
The former Balestier Khalsa man did get the ball in the net on 41 minutes after Damiani had misjudged a play by Noor Ali, but the linesman correctly flagged for offside on the part of Cheetahs skipper Shariff Abdul Samat, whose flick had invited Borges to pounce.
If leaking a goal early in the first half stung the Cheetahs, doing it again four minutes into the second period suggested a lesson not learnt on their part.
And Shariff was culpable as he conceded a free kick off a knee-high challenge on Jonathan Toto. Up stepped Camara, not the most usual of takers for Etoile, but that did not matter as he smashed the ball home through the defensive wall.
On 52 minutes, Hougang almost pulled a goal back from a brilliant piece of play involving Borges and Noor Ali, but a perfectly-weighted ball to which Jordan Webb connected well was sensationally saved by Trilles at full stretch.
It ensured that the Stars preserved their two-goal cushion, although Fadhil Salim prevented the margin from going wider when he saved right at the feet of the towering Toto.
Still, the third goal would come, and it did on 62 minutes when Chaaouane registered his second of the night.
Simple as the goal was, credit has to be given to Sirina Camara for doing well on the left flank after beating the Hougang defence to send in a dangerous cross that Fadhil could only palm towards the Etoile No.17, who tapped home from close range.
Substitute Diego Gama de Olivera then tested Trilles with a 45-yard shot, but the French goalkeeper proved nothing could go past him in open play on the night with another splendid save at full stretch.
The excellence was not limited to just one goalkeeper, as Fadhil came flying out of nowhere to deny Toto’s goalbound effort that would have made it 4-0.
Hougang eventually pulled a goal back six minutes from time when Pierre Nlate handled the ball in the box while trying to block a Noor Ali cross, prompting K. Kalimuthu to award a penalty which the Hougang winger put away himself.
Tensions rose briefly when Camara put in a heavy challenge on Delgado, prompting both sets of players to converge on the scene. Yet any fears of a mass brawl were quickly defused as, remarkably, both sets of players were busy trying to calm each other down while the captains had a word with the referee.
Nothing came of it, apart from a booking for Camara and some applause in the stands for a much more mature display by the teams, four months after the unsavoury events at Hougang Stadium that continue to linger in public memory.
That apart, though, Etoile coach Arena was evidently more concerned with the football, saying in the post-match interview that this was a good comeback performance after the Albirex annihilation.
“I had the opportunity to rest some players since I have an almost full squad now, except for Nordine Talhi and Maxime Belouet,” explained the Italian.
“To see the boys playing to our potential just the way we want it, keeping the ball as much as we could, is definitely the most pleasing part of this win.”
Hougang coach Aide Iskandar was meanwhile left to lament some sloppy work at the back, although he acknowledged the excellence of Trilles in foiling his side on numerous occasions.
Eight days earlier, his charges had managed a 2-0 win against the same goalkeeper, but this time there was no be no joy for the Cheetahs.
“It was definitely not our best of performance; the first two goals were definitely soft goals, and I felt that we could do better in terms of defending,” admitted the former Singapore international.
“We got the objective of giving several players a run out due to some injuries to a few players. But their goalkeeper was just fantastic today, and I thought that we could have gotten one or two more goals.
“The seven goals that he conceded against Albirex isn’t a clear indication of his abilities. We all know that he is a good goalkeeper, and unfortunately for us, he has shown it again today.” -(SOURCE)