The opening night of the 2012 season brought the Jaguars of Tanjong Pajar United to Hougang United’s home ground at Hougang Stadium.
That, of course, triggers memories of the corresponding fixture last year, which yielded a heart-stopping 4-3 thriller that still sits in the back of many fans’ minds, and they could be forgiven for expecting something similar in this ‘catfight’.
Hougang did what they could, dominating large parts of the game, but in the end the storyline did not play out as they would have hoped, as the visitors put up a valiant display to secure a 1-1 draw.
Takaya Kawanabe’s left-footed curler on 28 minutes marked what he would hope to be the start of another goal-laden season, having done well to cancel out Jordan Webb’s opener minutes earlier.
To be fair, Kawanabe and his fellow Jaguars always looked threatening whenever they broke for counterattacks, often led by their East Asian foreign trio.
The Japanese midfielder was joined by a pair of Koreans making their S.League debuts. Midfielder Jang In Jun impressed with his tenacity and touches, while Lee Joo Sang showed great feet up front and was constantly a thorn in the Cheetahs’ defence with his darting runs.
Hougang fans had their new foreign stars to cheer for, and while Stanislav Vidakovic probably still needs some convincing in defence, 31-year-old Ante Barac was at his enterprising best in midfield, showing excellent ball sense and the ability to distribute.
That might well evoke memories of Velimir Crljen, SAFFC’s playmaker in the league’s formative years, and as it moves into its adolescence this year, the signs suggest that Barac will be at the heart of many good things for the Cheetahs and the league as a whole.
Jordan Webb leaps to put in the header
It was no surprise that the game’s opening goal on 23 minutes came through an assist from Barac, whose sweet cross from the left saw flying winger Webb produce a gigantic leap to plan a header at the far corner for 1-0.
However, Hougang’s lead did not last, as a moment of hesitation by Vidakovic let Kawanabe in, and the Tanjong Pagar No.10 needed no second invitation, showing great composure before striking his equaliser.
The hosts were rattled, but they slowly got back into their groove. A lovely free kick on 40 minutes by Barac had half the crowd shouting for a goal, but the strike ended up hitting the side-netting.
On 56 minutes, Hougang could have retaken the lead, but Jaguars custodian Fajar Sarib denied Fazli Jaffar smartly before the deflection was ballooned wastefully by Nurhilmi Jasni.
Takaya Kawanabe levels the score
By this time, Tanjong Pagar were already slowly getting into their defensive shape, putting men behind the ball with their young captain Delwinder Singh leading the backline.
The speedy Lee meanwhile stayed up front on his own to cause problems for Hougang whenever possible.
The Cheetahs were restricted to long-range efforts as Barac, Azhar Sairudin and rightback Faizal Amir all made Fajar earn his keep in goal.
When they finally managed to penetrate into the Jaguars’ penalty area four minutes from time, as Webb created space out of nowhere to set up substitute Basit Abdul Hamid, Fajar was again alert to deflect the effort out wide.
Then a flowing move in injury time involving Basit and Barac almost saw Azhar finish an attack he really started, but the former Home United man’s final shot lacked bite and Fajar, himself a Protectors man just last year, was able to claw the ball away.
That left Hougang coach Nenad Bacina lamenting his players’ misfortune in what was his first post-match interview with sleague.com for three years, having previously worked with Woodlands Wellington in 2009.
“I am happy with the commitment, approach and how we played, but of course we can’t be happy with the final result,” said the Croatian.
“But this is football, it doesn’t mean when you control the game for 80 minutes, you will win the game.”
Jaguars coach Terry Pathmanathan meanwhile felt his players still needed time to gel as a team, despite having a number of experienced men such as Hafiz Osman and Jonathan Xu in their setup this year.
“The players were nervous and felt pressured for much of the game, even the more senior players,” he noted.
“They looked like they were afraid of holding the ball. In fact, I would say they are more than capable of doing so.”
There was bad news for Pathmanathan to contemplate as Azlan Alipah, one of his most experienced players, was taken to hospital in what could be a serious knee injury.
The veteran journeyman was withdrawn after just 26 minutes, and club officials will be closely following his condition ahead of the Jaguars’ next match against Albirex Niigata (Singapore). - (SOURCE)