Hougang denied all three points by gritty Balestier

Hougang United’s hopes of qualification for next season’s AFC Cup took a dent on Saturday night as they were held to a 1-1 home draw with Balestier Khalsa. 

The Cheetahs held the upper hand in the first half and led through Stipe Plazibat’s early goal, but paid the price for their sluggishness in the second half as they were pegged back by Syafiq Zainal’s 69th-minute strike.  

The win was there for the taking, with Balestier missing a host of key players like Fadli Kamis, Emir Lotinac, Niko Tokic, Miroslav Kristic and Zulkiffli Hassim.

The Tigers had to field winger Fadhil Noh at right back and the former Singapore under-23 international looked ill at ease in his new position.

That showed in the eighth minute when Hougang launched a counter-attack from a Balestier free-kick.

Plazibat latched onto Fumiya Kogure’s neat through-ball, brushing off the attentions of Fadhil easily before slotting past the onrushing Zaiful Nizam from eight yards out.

Balestier coach Marko Kraljevic believed his side should have done better under those circumstances.

“We made a big mistake from that free kick,” he reflected. “(Ho) Wai Loon was supposed to take the free kick from the right side, but everyone was out of position and I don’t know why.

“Fadhil’s playing a new position and he needed some time. I’m not blaming him, that’s part of learning.”

The visitors suffered yet another setback just before the break when playmaker Fazli Ayob was carried off for a suspected fractured right ankle, after coming off worse in a 50-50 challenge with Afiq Noor.

Hougang could have gone into half-time two goals to the good when M. Anumanthan released Iqbal through on goal, but the latter’s cheeky lob came off the crossbar before heading into the grateful arms of Zaiful.

The home side took some time to settle back into the game in the second half, but still had their chances with Plazibat heading Kogure’s cross just over while Iqbal’s close-range header was denied by Zaiful’s legs.

Balestier sensed the opportunity to get something from the game and began to push bodies forward after the hour mark.

They were rewarded for their endeavour on 69 minutes when Hougang failed to clear their lines from a free kick.  

The loose ball fell to Syafiq, who unleashed a snapshot from the edge of the box that squirmed underneath the body of Khairulhin Khalid for the equaliser.

Kraljevic’s side came under severe pressure in the closing stages as Hougang pushed forward for the winner, but their defence led by Sheikh Abdul Hadi held firm to repel anything that came their way.

There was one last opportunity for Hougang to win it a minute from time when they were awarded a free kick on the edge of the box, but Plazibat was unable to keep his effort down.

The game eventually ended 1-1, with Hougang now having to look over their shoulders in their quest to qualify for the 2017 AFC Cup.

They are now just a point ahead of nearest challengers Home United and four clear of Geylang International, with just three more games to go.

Hougang coach K Balagumaran admitted that all the talk surrounding the club’s continental ambitions got to the players’ heads a little, but believes it is a good challenge of their mettle.

“People are talking and the players are thinking that they have a great chance (to make it to the AFC Cup),” he said. “There’s certainly some pressure and I will try to take this off them for the next game.

“Now it’s anybody’s game (to finish as the second-highest local team and anything is possible. It’s important that these young boys show character at this stage; to be stand up and be counted.”

Photos: S.League