Hougang United vs Balestier Khalsa: AFC-chasing Cheetahs seeking another win
A match between a team with nothing to lose while the other has everything to play for.
Hougang United Form
- Garena Young Lions 0-2 Hougang (S.League)
- Hougang 1-2 Brunei DPMM (S.League)
- Tampines Rovers 1-2 Hougang (S.League)
- Hougang 4-2 Home United (S.League)
- Hougang 1-2 Geylang International (League Cup Plate Final)
Balestier Khalsa Form
- Balestier 1-1 Warriors FC (S.League)
- Balestier 0-1 Albirex Niigata (S) (SG Cup SF Leg 2)
- Albirex Niigata (S) 1-0 Balestier (SG Cup SF Leg 1)
- Geylang International 2-1 Balestier (S.League)
- Balestier 0-1 Albirex Niigata (S) (S.League)
It looks like the S.League title race is almost done, but the race to finish as the second highest-ranked local side (which comes with qualification for next season's AFC Cup) is just heating up.
Realistically three teams (Hougang, Home United and Geylang International) are still in the mix, with Hougang holding their fate in their own hands. They currently hold a three-point advantage over the other two, with Geylang having played a game more.
The equation is simple for the Cheetahs - win their final four games and the AFC Cup spot will be theirs, but of course it is easier said than done.
Next, they face a daunting trip away to runaway leaders Albirex Niigata (S), a crucial six-pointer against Geylang before rounding off the season away against Warriors FC. Thus K Balagumaran's men will certainly view this game as possibly the easiest of the lot to navigate past.
On the other hand, Balestier's season is almost done and dusted. Key departures have hit them hard after a superb 2015 season that saw them finish fourth and qualify for the AFC Cup.
The Tigers class of 2016 have been knocked out of both domestic Cups and are languishing second-from-bottom, with just three wins and six draws in 20 games.
There is no promotion or elegation system in the S.League, so they are pretty much safe. With 15 points, they have also attained 20 percent of the maximum total number of points available for the year, so they will not face any deduction to their subsidies.
No matter how you look at it, there's nothing much for Marko Kraljevic's outfit to play for except to secure playing contracts for next season.
Apart from long-term injury victims Ali Hudzaifi, Wahyudi Wahid and Delwinder Singh, Hougang are in a good bill of health.
Centre-back Yusiskandar Yusop has recovered from his hamstring injury, while Raihan Raihan is back from a one-match ban to bolster the defensive options.
In contrast, Balestier are missing a number of key players. Defenders Emir Lotinac, Hanafi Salleh and Ahmad Syahir are all injured, as well as forward Niko Tokic, who was carried off early in last week's 1-1 draw with Warriors.
Winger Zulkiffli Hassim is out for the rest of the season due to a prolonged ban for abusive language towards a match official.
Key Battle: Fumiya Kogure vs Shah Hirul
It is no secret that Hougang excel whenever Kogure is on form.
The 27-year-old Japanese playmaker, who has eight goals and eight assists in all competitions, makes things tick in the engine room with his superb vision and ability on the ball.
Whether Balestier can nick a result will depend on whether hard man Shah Hirul is up to the task of shackling the reigning S.League Player of the Year.
Hougang's Balagumaran has to decide if he is going to stick with the makeshift centre-back pairing of Nurhilmi Jasni and Afiq Noor, which served him so well in last week's 2-0 win over Garena Young Lions.
As for Balestier's Kraljevic, he will have to find a system that brings the best out of Miroslav Kristic, with the Croatian forward clearly struggling to hit the heights of last season when he scored 23 goals in all competitions.
Facts and Figures
Last Five Meetings
- Hougang 2-1 Balestier (League Cup Plate SF, Jul '16)
- Balestier 2-2 Hougang (S.League, Jun ’16)
- Hougang 1-0 Balestier (S.League, Mar ’16)
- Hougang 1-1 Balestier (S.League, Nov ‘15)
- Balestier 3-2 Hougang (S.League, Aug ’15)
- The last scoreless draw between these two teams occurred in July 2009.
- Hougang are on a streak of two straight losses at Hougang Stadium, after being unbeaten in their first six games there.
- Hougang's Kogure and Stipe Plazibat have scored two apiece against Balestier in all competitions this sesaon.
- Two out of Balestier's three wins all season have come away from home.
- Balestier have not kept a clean sheet in their last 20 games in all competitions.
Balestier will battle hard, but it could be in vain against an in-form Hougang side. The Cheetahs to nick a 2-1 win.