Albirex Niigata (S) vs Hougang United: Can Cheetahs prove they are the real deal?

S.League | Jurong East Stadium | Sat 2 Mar | 7:30pm

Billed as

Albirex Niigata (S) form

  • Warriors FC 2-0 Albirex Niigata (S) (S.League)
  • Geylang International 0-0 Albirex Niigata (S) (S.League)
  • Balestier Khalsa 1-1 Albirex Niigata (S) (S.League)
  • Garena Young Lions 0-5 Albirex Niigata (S) (S.League)
  • Albirex Niigata (S) 3-2 Brunei DPMM (S.League)

Hougang United form

  • Hougang United 1-0 Balestier Khalsa (S.League)
  • Garena Young Lions 1-3 Hougang United (S.League)
  • Hougang United 0-0 Brunei DPMM (S.League)
  • Tampines Rovers 4-1 Hougang United (S.League)
  • Hougang United 1-0 Home United (S.League)

Hougang United’s chance to establish themselves as proper title contenders.

The lowdown

Who would have thought? Hougang United, last year’s cellar-dwellers, are currently sat at the top of the league table.

They have been impressive thus far, apart from that 4-1 defeat to Tampines Rovers. In their last match, they managed to grind out a 1-0 victory over Balestier Khalsa, a side that teams have struggled to break down this season.

Granted, it’s only been seven weeks into the season, but with other teams struggling to stay consistent, the Cheetahs have gone ahead and take advantage of it.

The game against the Albirex Niigata (S) represents another chance for them to further consolidate their position as a proper title contender.

The White Swans have seemingly slowed down after a bright start to the season. After winning their first two games of the season, they earned just two points in their next three matches.

Goals have seemingly dried up too. They scored only once in the last three, after putting the ball into the back of the net eight times in the first two matches.

Against Warriors in their last outing, they were unable to convert the chances they created, and eventually paid for it with defensive lapses.

However, given the fact that the Japanese outfit has played all their games away from home, their poor form might be understandable. Saturday is a chance for them to stop the rut.

Team News

Most of the squad are fit and available for the Cheetahs.

The only absentee is full-back Ali Hudzaifi, who continues to recover from his anterior cruciate ligament injury and will be out for long term, while midfielder Raihan Rahman is a doubt after suffering an ankle knock.

Yusiskandar Yusop, who did not feature in the last match, is in line for a return, while Samuel Benjamin is also available for selection.

As for the Japanese side, coach Naoki Naruo should have a full side to choose from.

Key Battle: Masaya Jitozono vs M. Anumanthan

M. Anumanthan has been in superb form so far this year and he is one of the reasons why the Cheetahs have leaped to the top of the table.

Should Raihan not recover in time, more responsibilities will fall on Anumanthan, who will undoubtedly be given the task of keeping Jitozono quiet.

The Albirex playmaker has stepped into the boots left by Fumiya Kogure, last year’s S.League player of the year who now players for Hougang.

The 26-year-old has been making things tick for the White Swans, and stopping him is akin to stopping the entire Albirex attack, as Geylang International and Warriors FC found out.

The Coaches

Last five meetings

  • Albirex Niigata (S) 1-0 Hougang United (S.League)
  • Hougang United 1-1 Albirex Niigata (S) (S.League)
  • Albirex Niigata (S) 2-1 Hougang United (S.League)
  • Albirex Niigata (S) 0-1 Hougang United (S.League)
  • Hougang United 3-1 Albirex Niigata (S) (S.League)

Both coaches are similar in requiring their players’ full effort and discipline when they step out onto the pitch.

However, that’s where the similarities end.

Naoki Naruo, who is in his second Albirex coaching stint, prefers his teams to hold onto possession when attacking.

On the other hand, Hougang’s K. Balagumaran wants his team to play direct, attacking football with speed, especially down the wings.

Facts and Figures

  • Saturday’s game will be the first to be played on the newly-installed artificial pitch at Jurong East Stadium.
  • Of the 16 times both teams have played each other in the last five years, Hougang United have only won four times.
  • Fumiya Kogure scored the only goal of the game in the last meeting between both teams.

FourFourTwo prediction

Hougang 1-1 Albirex. Albirex will be no easy opponent especially at Jurong East Stadium, but Hougang's good start to the season is no fluke either.

Photos: S.League