The common theme for the Young Lions at the AFC U23 Championship qualifying rounds was the lack of clinical finishing ability, which cost them dearly against Hong Kong. Several clear-cut chances were squandered, as they eventually settled for a 1-1 draw despite dominating the game and having the majority of chances. Without Ikhsan Fandi, who has left to ply his football in Norway, their struggles up front look set to continue against Hougang United.
Hougang, on the other hand, have had no problems up front, having already scored seven times this season in just three games. The duo of Faris Ramli and Stipe Plazibat have been key to this, accounting for five of Hougang’s seven goals. The attacking movement on display was both incisive and clinical as The Cheetahs put Warriors FC to the sword, netting five times. They will be looking to and to their goal tally against a Young Lions defence that has not convinced this season, having conceded four times to Balestier Khalsa in their opening fixture.
Young Lions shaky in defence and stuttering in attack
After conceding four times to a Balestier attack that has not looked particularly sharp this season, questions were already beginning to be asked of Young Lions’ defensive capabilities. Their leaky defence further came to the fore in their AFC U23 Championship qualifying campaign, where they failed to keep a single clean sheet, in what proved to be a highly costly shortcoming.
Questions will have to be asked of young midfielder Jacob Mahler, who has been tasked with shielding the defence, but has often been found lacking in games. He has found himself struggling to impose himself physically in midfield, while his lack of experience at this level means it will be some time before he is able to develop sufficient positional awareness to play his role effectively. As such, the defence is often left exposed, and teams find it easy to run at the Young Lions backline unchallenged.
Although talented, with goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad and defender Lionel Tan, in particular, shining recently, the team has been unable to defend as a cohesive unit, and this is where opposition teams can pick them apart. They will need to work on their structure and defensive shape on the training ground if they are to contain Hougang’s threat of Faris and Stipe.
Up front, The Cubs lack a striker who has a proven ability to lead the line. Last season's star, Ikhsan, has left for Raufoss in the Norwegian league, and Syukri Bashir has failed to impress. It will be down to the midfield to support the struggling front line, and captain Joshua Pereira, in particular, should be looking to add goals to his game this season if Young Lions were to build upon last year’s seventh-place finish. The final ball has been missing for Young Lions in recent weeks, and they will hope this changes sooner rather than later.
Hougang’s dynamic duo could have a field day
Against such a shaky Young Lions defence, Faris Ramli and Stipe Plazibat could be in for a treat this weekend. The duo played together at Home United in 2017, reaching a combined total of 57 goals and 34 assists that year. They already have scored five in just three games this season, with Faris, in particular, looking unstoppable.
Faris has scored in all three games he has played in this season, grabbing the consolation in the 5-1 thrashing by Tampines Rovers, before recording fine finishes in wins against Balestier and Warriors.
Although Faris will return from the international break with the disappointment of missing the crucial penalty in the shootout in the AIRMARINE Cup Final against Oman, he will be hungry to atone for his error, and there is no better place to do it than against the suspect Young Lions defence, and with partner in crime Stipe alongside him.
Stipe narrowly missed out on the golden boot in 2017, while also firing Home United to the AFC Cup ASEAN Zonal Finals. He will look to claim the prize this year, and after missing much of the 2018 season due to issues at his previous club, he will be hoping to make up for lost time. He notched a brilliant brace against Warriors last time around, and Young Lions might just simply find him too hot to handle this weekend.
It's hard to envisage anything but a victory for Hougang as they continue their title challenge against a struggling Young Lions side. However, if Young Lions can find their scoring touch, and turn their quality on the ball into goals, a surprise result may not be too far away.