A 94th-minute header by talismanic forward Ken Ilso inspired Home United to a 2-1 victory over Hougang United at the Bishan Stadium on Thursday evening.
However, Ilso broke Hougang’s hearts four minutes into injury time and sent his side into the 2016 Singapore Cup quarter-finals.
After a tepid first half where both sides struggled to create clear-cut chances, the second half exploded into action with Azhar heading home Sirina Camara’s superb left-wing cross on 48 minutes.
That was the 30-year-old’s third goal in as many games, strengthening his claim for a first-ever national team call-up.
Home’s lead lasted just 10 minutes though, with Hougang’s Japanese playmaker Kogure powering home the equaliser via a brilliant drive from 25 yards out that had Home keeper Zulfairuuz Rudy grasping at thin air.
The Protectors then had chance after chance to retake the lead, but somehow failed to put them away.
First, it was Ilso who fired wide of the post despite being six yards out in the 68th minute after being set up by a superb reverse-lofted pass by Azhar.
Eleven minutes later, Zulfahmi Arifin released Azhar but the latter was unable to repeat his earlier featas he curled disappointingly wide.
Ilso then saw his free-kick just outside the box coming back off the post on 88 minutes, before substitute Khairul Nizam saw his goalbound shot hacked off the line by Hougang defender Delwinder Singh two minutes later.
It looked like it was not going to be Home’s night until the fourth minute of injury time.
After Nizam was brought down by Faiz Salleh, Zulfahmi played in a superb free-kick for Ilso to head past a stranded Hougang keeper Khairulhin Khalid for the match winner.
The final whistle soon followed, sparking some ugly scenes as the Hougang players had to be restrained from confronting referee G. Letchman due to an earlier decision not going their way.
Hougang coach K Balagumaran understandably wore a dejected look at the post-match press conference after losing the game in such a manner.
“The boys were very frustrated after the final whistle and I can feel how they felt,” he said. “The team bonding has been good and they really felt they can achieve something in the Singapore Cup.
Ilso headed past a stranded Hougang keeper Khairulhin Khalid for the match winner.
“They were fighting so hard to find the winner, but in the end the free-kick cost us the game. Everyone is sad and disappointed now, but this is part of the game. I have to pick them up and get them focused back in the league.”
On the other hand, Home coach Philippe Aw was pleased that his side managed to emerge victorious after spurning many gilt-edged opportunities.
“In the first half, we had difficulties because Hougang came here with a plan,” said the 39-year-old. “They sat back with two blocks waiting for us to lose the ball so that they can counter. The early goal we scored in the second half made the game better.
“We then created plenty of chances, but did not put them away; we hit the post, we had a chance cleared off the line. I was then prepared to go to extra time until Ken scored. On the whole, I felt we deserved to go through.”