After a disastrous start to their AIA Singapore Premier League campaign, in which they were thrashed 5-1 by league leaders Tampines Rovers following Justin Hui’s 50th minute sending off, Hougang United have bounced back with two wins on the trot. They edged past Balestier Khalsa with a 1-0 win courtesy of a fine Faris Ramli finish, before convincingly dispatching Warriors FC 5-1 last week.
The early signs of promise are there, with new signing Faris having scored three goals in as many games, while Stipe Plazibat, returning to Hougang after two seasons away, has netted twice. Much has been made of the attacking partnership between Stipe and Faris. In 2017, the duo combined for a stunning 57 goals and 34 assists while playing together for Home United, and they already account for five of the seven goals scored by Hougang this season.
Against Warriors, their instinctive ability to play off each other came to the fore, with some intrinsic passing on display in the attacking third. Stipe left the field with a brace, while Faris also scored once. With this duo up top, Hougang can lay claim to the most potent attack in the league; one that is likely to strike fear into opposition defenders. If Hougang are to stake a claim to the league title, goals will be crucial and these two are guaranteed to fire them in.
Hougang also have plenty of quality on the bench in the attacking department, with Singapore internationals Iqbal Hussain and Fazrul Nawaz waiting in the wings. They have strengthened their midfield significantly as well, with the return of 2016 Young Player of The Year M. Anumanthan, and the versatile Hafiz Sujad. Zulfhami Arifin, who enjoyed a stellar season in Thailand with Chonburi FC last season, has also returned to take up the captain’s armband.
This strength in depth will be crucial if Hougang are to make a tilt for the title. Hougang had four players capped by Singapore at senior level on their bench against Warriors, and that they walked away with a 5-1 win on the day is testament to the depth of their squad. The season is a long one, and Hougang will hope that their reinforcements will be able to do the job when called upon.
The vast experience of players such as Zulfahmi and Hafiz, who have played numerous times for the country, and in overseas leagues, will also be key in guiding young players like Justin, Amir Zalani, and Mahathir Azeman. Hougang appear to have added well to their squad, with the right blend of experience and youth making it an exciting time to be a Hougang United supporter.
However, one area of the pitch in which Hougang might be caught out is in defence. The defence was exposed time and time again against Tampines, who put five past them. Youngster Jordan Vestering lacks experience, although he more than makes up for it with his talent. However, it is only natural for him to be prone to errors given his young age, and this could be where Hougang are undone.
Centre back Afiq Yunos, signed from Tampines, has had a difficult couple of years, struggling for minutes at Home United in 2017, and not doing any better at Tampines the following season, before eventually being farmed out on loan to Geylang International. He will have to prove his worth to the fans, some of whom are not yet fully convinced by their new signing.
Fabian Kwok, a reliable and hardworking midfielder, has also been converted to a defender in recent years at Hougang. With a defence that appears to have been hurriedly put together, consisting of youngsters, players who warmed the bench at other clubs, and a midfielder turned defender, Hougang could struggle at the back. Even against Warriors, when they scored five of their own, they could not keep a clean sheet. Hougang need to shore up their defence or risk it being exposed in the long season ahead.
Its difficult to judge Hougang this early into the season, but they have started brightly, and look to have put together one of the best attacks in the league. Their midfield is hardworking and tenacious, mixing both experience and youth, and they appear to have sufficient depth to last the length of the season. Only time will tell if their defence can hold its own against the best in the league. However, don’t be surprised to see Hougang still up there challenging for the title come September.