It may have seemed to those watching that Great Eastern-YEO’S S.League leaders Home United were devoid of ideas or imagination during the first half of their Tuesday night match at Hougang Stadium, but according to Protectors coach Lee Lim Saeng after the game, that was all part of the strategy he had devised against Hougang United.
The Cheetahs may have been missing five players, but three of them were defenders and none were strikers, so he had reasoned that scoring goals was likely to be less of a problem for his men than conceding them.
Lee therefore went for a conservative approach in the first period before coming out in the second for what ended as a 2-0 win for his Protectors.
“Hougang are dangerous on the counterattack, so I did not want my players taking too many risks,” he explained.
No doubt he had hoped, all the same, to score at least one before the break, but a clean sheet was his definite priority.
It was an approach that paid off handsomely just four minutes after the restart, when the in-form Sherif El-Masri made a darting run and came down under the challenge of Hougang defender Syaqir Sulaiman just inside the penalty area on the left-hand side.
Referee Abas Daud was in no doubt that a spot-kick was warranted and quickly pointed to the spot.
Shi Jiayi stepped up and placed his penalty kick expertly to Fadhil Salim’s left to put Home one goal up, a goal Cheetahs coach Aide Iskandar was rueful about.
“I didn’t think it was a penalty myself,” he said after the game.
This was the first of two goals managed by the visitors, who were untroubled, really, after scoring the second nine minutes later through Valery Hiek following a corner on the left.
Hougang gave a good account of themselves in their final home game, with a team that was missing skipper Shariff Abdul Samat, Ratna Suffian, Lau Meng Meng, Fazli Jaffar and playmaker Mohd Noor Ali.
Most of the chances were created by the Cheetahs in the first half, as Home elected to spend much of their time in their own half and rely on the odd counterattack themselves.
While Lionel Lewis had to be on top of his game to claim a number of long-range shots in both halves, there was little real danger being presented in the goalmouth by the home team either.
Vitor Borges took a long-range shot in the tenth minute that Lewis claimed under his crossbar, while at the other end Shi had a shot from distance of his own that, despite taking an awkward deflection, was claimed well by Fadhil two minutes later.
Jordan Webb was his usual lively self, especially in the first half, and had Mamadou Diallo, Borges and Carlos Delgado in support going forward on many incisive raids.
Webb’s searching run down the right on 14 minutes, which included some nice wing play and trickery, led to a cross that could have fared better, but eluded any defenders handily placed and, more importantly, never came close to getting a touch from any Hougang player.
Something similar happened at the other end eight minutes later, when Masrezwan Masturi got to the right by-line and crossed well, only for the converging Firdaus Idros to be denied by a sharp tackle from Eddie Chang.
Chang also did well to deny El-Masri on 26 minutes when he nearly got to a cross by Shi before the Hougang defenders could intervene six yards out.
Basit Abdul Hamid made a strong run down the right flank shortly afterwards, getting past the last defender, only to shoot into the side netting when within firing range.
Borges also had another good shot from 20 yards ten minutes before half-time that Lewis took safely just under the crossbar.
There was a heated exchange between Protectors coach Lee and referee Abas on 40 minutes, after Webb had been booked for a challenge on Masrezwan near the touchline and adjacent to the Home bench.
Lee remonstrated with the match official, as he had not deemed it necessary to book Masrezwan too, and for his trouble the coach was sent to the stands.
“I shouted at him,” Lee stated matter-of-factly after the match.
“I did not agree with his decision to book Masrezwan. I decided to go and sit in the stands for the rest of the game.”
Of course the Korean coach had little option, having been dismissed by Abas, but to keep his distance.
He was all smiles after the game, though, praising his players for a good performance and for following his instructions.
That said, there was perhaps more that the Hougang defence could have done to prevent the second Home goal.
The corner from the left sent over by El-Masri was a good one, but with Frederic Mendy and Firdaus putting pressure on the defenders the ball landed near the goalkeeper who seemed to be leaving it for his other players to boot clear.
Hiek needed no personal invitation to blast the ball into the roof of the net and earn his side a 2-0 win, although again the hosts might have found something to justify their failure to keep that one out.
“Fadhil told me he could not reach the ball, as he had someone blocking him,” Aide explained later.
After that Hougang were nowhere near as effective, and more and more of their moves broke down.
From a free kick on 69 minutes, delivered from out wide on the left by Juma’at Jantan, Firdaus got his head to the ball first and then Mendy’s subsequent back-header went over the bar to spare Hougang the spectre of a much more emphatic-looking 0-3 defeat.
Aide also mentioned that he had decided not to include Brazilian Diego de Oliveira for tactical reasons, preferring Diallo instead as his fourth foreigner on this occasion.
“Diego is still feeling the effects of his hamstring injury, so I chose Diallo as I wanted a player who could last 90 minutes,” he elaborated.
Diallo had one or two chances and some of the Hougang approach play he was involved in was a delight to watch, and the 21-year-old had a free kick that went narrowly wide.
Hougang’s best opportunity in open play came on 74 minutes after Diallo, Sobrie Mazelan, Webb and Borges had exchanged passes several times before substitute Azhar Sairudin tested Lewis from close range, a task that the national team goalkeeper was well able to deal with.
Home thus remain two points clear of Tampines Rovers and can seal the championship by beating their rivals in their next match, which will be played at Tampines Stadium on 23 November.
If that game is drawn Home would need only one more point from their final home game of the season against Geylang United at Bishan Stadium.
Tampines finish with a home game against Balestier Khalsa the same evening.
Hougang’s fortunes may have dipped a little, having secured only one point from their last three games, all at home, but they can finish their season brightly with a final match away to Tanjong Pagar United, where a win would give them a shot at finishing in seventh spot.
Aide reflected on his home season after the game.
“I am proud of what we have done here this season,” he said.
“We have managed some very good wins, and we played well tonight despite losing to a good side like Home United.
“We have the (RHB) Singapore Cup playoff game to come, and the match at Clementi against Tanjong Pagar, so there’s still a few things for us to look forward to. All of the suspended players will be back for the final league match and apart from Fazli Jaffar, the rest will also be available for the Cup game as well.” -(SOURCE)