SAFFC kept alive their slim hopes of winning the Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League title with a hard-fought but well-deserved 3-1 victory on the road over Hougang United on Wednesday evening.
Bouncing back after debilitating consecutive home defeats to fellow title challengers Tampines Rovers and Home United, the win took the eight-time S.League champions up to fourth, six points behind leaders Home, with five matches remaining.
Richard Bok rang the changes, leaving Singapore internationals Fazrul Nawaz and Shaiful Esah on the bench and playing Japanese winger Taisuke Akiyoshi in a central role just behind strikers Mislav Karoglan and Indra Sahdan Daud.
With Mustaqim Manzur suspended, there was to be a second debut for Zulfadli Zainal Abidin following his return to Choa Chu Kang from Bishan after completing his National Service stint.
The home side were themselves missing their inspirational skipper Shariff Abdul Samat through suspension, and they could not have gotten off to a worse start on the sleek Hougang pitch.
The impressive Ivan Jerkovic hammered a hopeful shot from the edge of the area which Fadhil Salim could only parry, and who else but Karoglan was there in a flash to put the ball into the net with barely 78 seconds on the clock.
Had SAFFC been playing the Sengkang Punggol of old, that early opener might have prompted an avalanche of goals, all of them headed in Fadhil’s direction.
The Hougang of 2011 are certainly made of sterner stuff, especially on home soil, and it was no surprise when they levelled barely 12 minutes later.
Canadian liverwire Jordan Webb found Vitor Borges in space on the right, and the Brazilian made no mistake, slotting home beyond the despairing dive of Shahril Jantan to the delight of the vociferous Hougang faithful.
Veteran midfielder Mohd Noor Ali was having an inspired game in the first half and provided a dangerous attacking outlet down the left, and he constantly tracked back to help his defence too.
Hougang were growing in confidence, and they should have gone ahead just after the half-hour mark. Once again, the Webb-Borges combination found the latter in acres of space inside the box, but he blasted his effort well over.
That woke the slumbering Warriors up, and led by the quick movement and interplay among the triumvirate of Karoglan, Jerkovic and Akiyoshi, they slowly grabbed a stranglehold on the game.
Karoglan, the league’s top scorer, had already notched a good 28 goals in his maiden S.League campaign, and it was a matter of time before the tally became 29.
The Croatian fluffed a free header just before half-time, and then almost scored one of the goals of the season after the break with a spectacular overhead kick from just inside the box, which Fadhil did very well to tip over.
Karoglan would not be denied, though, and after getting involved in arguably the move of the match, he put the Warriors back in front. A lovely flowing sequence found Jerkovic down the right, and his pinpoint centre was smashed home by his gleeful compatriot.
Bok then brought on Fazrul for the ineffective Indra, and the substitute would then waste two glorious opportunities to put the game to bed. Barely a minute after coming on, the 26-year-old found himself one-on-one in the box with only the keeper to beat but inexplicably placed his effort wide.
Fazrul then created his second chance all by himself as his pace took him past the entire Hougang defence, but this time the far post came to the Cheetahs’ rescue.
Zulfadli then showed how it should be done three minutes from time as he capped a solid performance with a left-foot stinger into the bottom far corner from outside the box.
Game, set and match for SAFFC, and while it may not be enough for the title ultimately, they will no doubt keep plugging away in their final five fixtures until the mathematics tells the fat lady to sing.
Bok was a relieved man after the final whistle.
“It was good to get back to winning ways,” he told sleague.com.
“It was a very good win today. The boys showed very good movement, and I was particularly pleased with how we scored our second goal.
“I shuffled the side today, brought in some fresh legs, and the boys did very well.”
Akiyoshi’s impressive performance in the middle of the park may offer Bok a selection dilemma for the remaining fixtures.
“Aki showed high energy levels today and like most Japanese players, he likes to pass and move. I may just keep playing him in the centre from now on!”
Bok’s opposite number Aide Iskandar felt that the Warriors were well worth their win.
“They were the hungrier side today,” admitted the 36-year-old.
“We had chances to score and the boys tried, and I’m disappointed for them.
“We missed Shariff today; he’s a key figure in our defence. Azhar (Sairudin) twisted his ankle and I had to take him off, which disrupted our rhythm.
“We have three more games to go and we’re going to give all we’ve got. We’ll see where we finish come the end of the season.” - (SOURCE)