Croatian hit man Stipe Plazibat scored his fifth goal in as many games to fire Hougang United to a 1-0 victory over Balestier Khalsa and to the top of the S.League table.
The drab affair at Hougang Stadium had threatened to end in stalemate before Plazibat’s timely intervention eight minutes before the end.
Having beaten Home United 1-0 and held Brunei DPMM at the same venue previously this season, Hougang started this game the more confident side and carved out three openings in the first 20 minutes.
Plazibat first saw his shot denied at point-blank range by Balestier goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam before Fairoz Hasan blazed over from three yards out after being picked out by an excellent Jozef Kaplan left-wing cross.
Kaplan went on to fire a grounder just wide of the left-hand post after exchanging passes with Fumiya Kogure.
The hosts’ bright start soon fizzled out with Balestier gradually coming to terms with the tempo of the game, with Gary Loo forcing Hougang custodian Khairulhin Khalid to stretch for a save after getting on the end of Sadin Smajovic’s cutback.
The Tigers were forced to make a change in the 39th minute with Jamil Ali coming on for the injured Fadhil Noh, but that did not halt their momentum.
They could have broken the deadlock just before the break when Fazli Ayob’s 30-yard free kick evaded everyone in the Hougang box, but Khairulhin was alert enough to push it out for a corner.
Hougang ran out for the second half the more energetic side and went close on 48 minutes when Kogure’s 25-yard free kick sailed just over the bar.
Kaplan then fired high into the stadium’s floodlights just before the hour mark after taking down Kogure’s ball from the right.
K Balagumaran’s side could have paid the price for those misses thereafter with Jamil twice nipping in front of Khairulhin inside the box, but both attempted lobs fell just short of making the mark.
It looked like the match was heading for a 0-0 draw before Hougang finally made the breakthrough via a set-piece on 82 minutes.
Kaplan won the duel with Zaiful in the air to knock on Kogure’s free kick for Plazibat to help home into an empty net.
Balestier coach Marko Kraljevic reacted by throwing on last season’s top scorer Miroslav Kristic for the final five minutes, but there was no way past the stout Cheetahs backline.
The final whistle soon sounded to signal a third Hougang win in five matches as they capitalized on Brunei DPMM’s 2-1 loss to Tampines Rovers to go top of the table.
Jubilant chants of “we’re top of the league” from the Hougang HOOLS (Hougang’s unofficial supporters’ club) reverberated around the stadium and understandably so.
Speaking after the game, match winner Plazibat preferred to give credit to his team mates instead of taking all the plaudits.
“This is a hardworking team and we work together for every game,” said the 26-year-old, who is now tied on five goals with Warriors FC’s Jonathan Behe at the top of the S.League scoring charts.
“It doesn’t matter who score, as long as we win. I don’t want to take so much praise for this win because it’s not possible to score without them.
“I’ve to give credit to our defence too for keeping their third clean sheet in five games.”
With a two-week international break coming up, Hougang will remain top till the league resumes on April 1, but Plazibat was keen not to read too much into that.
“Yes, of course when you look at the table now, it’s a really good feeling,” he explained. “But we need to continue to go in this way.
“We still have a lot of areas to improve on, so we have to forget this win and keep working hard. It only matters when we’re top at the end of the season, not now.”