Hougang spurn chance for third after second-half meltdown to Warriors
In their last outing at Hougang Stadium, the Cheetahs lost 2-1 to Albirex Niigata (S) after leading 1-0 at half time.
Lightning was to strike again this time round, with Hafiz Nor, Shaiful Esah and Jonathan Behe scoring for the Warriors after the break to cancel out Nurhilmi Jasni’s 40th-minute opener.
Hougang had controlled things well in the first half, with Stipe Plazibat clipping the bar on 26 minutes after being found by a neat low cross from captain Jozef Kaplan into the box.
K Balagumaran’s side duly broke the deadlock five minutes before half-time, with Nurhilmi left unmarked to nod home Fumiya Kogure’s inswinging corner.
Wahyudi Wahid then went close to firing the Cheetahs 2-0 ahead thereafter, but his powerful 20-yard drive was parried by Warriors goalkeeper Yazid Yasin.
Hougang tried to keep up the momentum in the second half, but their plans were ruined when centre-back Delwinder Singh had to limp off due to injury in the 58th minute.
Yusiskandar Yusop came on to replace the former, but was unable to stop the Warriors from grabbing the equaliser just three minutes later.
The 31-year-old failed to cut out Behe’s slide-rule pass into the box, leading to Hafiz Nor striding onto the leather before finishing with aplomb.
Hougang then had a great chance to retake the lead on 75 minutes, but Plazibat somehow directed Faiz Salleh’s left-wing cross wide of the mark.
They were to pay the price for that miss as the Warriors scored again 10 minutes later.
Set-piece specialist Shaiful delivered a superb 30-yard free-kick that arrowed right into the top right corner, leaving Khairulhin rooted to the spot.
With Hougang committing numbers forward in search of the equaliser, the nine-time champions seized the opportunity to complete the comeback a minute from time.
A poor clearance from Khairulhin led to Nikola Rak breaking free in the box, who in turn unselfishly teed up Behe for a sizzling low finish from close range.
A second successive win for the Warriors meant they have closed the gap between them and third-placed Home United to just four points, with caretaker coach Razif Onn understandably delighted at the turn of fortunes.
“It (the table) looks fantastic right?” said the 62-year-old. “The players are slowly adapting and I hope this continues.
“I was a bit upset with the way we conceded that first goal. You look at the way Hougang play; they focus on their three attackers Fumiya, Stipe and Kaplan. So I told the central midfielders to drop deep and kill their threat – that worked for us.”
Meanwhile the result meant Hougang failed to capitalise on Home’s shock loss to Geylang International on the same night, as they remained at fourth place with 22 points from 16 matches.
“Me and the team really wanted the three points,” lamented Hougang counterpart Balagumaran. “But we just forgot how to defend.
“But I don’t want to point fingers at anyone. If you compare us with others, we’re one of the youngest teams in the league with an average age of 25. If you give them time, they’ll be a different team. I believe it’s still possible to finish in the top five.”