In what could be a huge blow to Hougang United's title chances, goals from Syukri Bashir and Saifullah Akbar sealed a 2-1 victory for Young Lions at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday.
After a heartbreaking AFC U22 Qualification campaign, in which the Young Lions finished unbeaten in their group (drawing with Hong Kong U22 and North Korea U22 and beating Mongolia U22) but failed to qualify for the tournament, it could be understandable if the Cubs were suffering from some post-tournament malaise ahead of their clash with Hougang. The 8 hour flight back home from Ulaanbataar certainly didn't play in their favour.
However, Fandi Ahmad's side were having none of it, flying out of the blocks and putting themselves about. Pressing manically throughout the game, the Cubs showed no signs of jetlag, putting Hougang through their paces effectively.
The Cheetahs, meanwhile, were expected to win this game comfortably. With most of their players uninvolved in the international break and those that were, namely Zulfahmi Arifin and Faris Ramli, starring for Singapore in the AIRMARINE Cup, a solid performance was expected, as they looked to brush aside the young side and consolidate their top 3 spot.
It all goes pear shaped for Hougang
The Young Lions, however, had other ideas. Without a league win to their name this season, it was the boys in red that went about the pitch with greater urgency, cutting out Hougang attacks at source and pressing high up the pitch. With Hougang starting with three up top in the form of Faris, Stipe Plazibat and $50,000 signing Fazrul Nawaz, there was no shortage of firepower. However, the Young Lions back four was airtight, keeping their more illustrious counterparts at bay for much of the 90.
A deserved opening arrived for the Young Lions midway through the first half. Syed Firdaus Hassan broke free down the right, and whipped in a teasing cross which evaded both Jordan Vestering and Afiq Yunos. Up rose Syukri, who thumped an excellent header beyond Heng How Meng in the Hougang goal to open the scoring. Cue wild celebrations amongst the Young Lions players.
However, the lead wasn't to last. 13 minutes into the second half, Faris broke into the Young Lions area and seemed to be quite clearly upended, only for the referee to signal for a corner, much to the disbelief of the Hougang fans and players. However, with Zulfahmi in the side, any sort of set play would represent a chance, and so it proved. The Singapore international floated in a pinpoint delivery, which was met by centre half Afiq, who made no mistake from close range. Game on.
It was Fandi's Cubs who would have the final laugh, though, albeit in fortuitous circumstances. With seemingly no danger on, Jordan Vestering smacked his clearance against Saifullah Akbar, with the ball rebounding off the former Tenerife B man and into the back of the net. He knew little about it, but just try taking the goal away from young Saifullah, who wheeled away in ecstatic celebration as his side retook the lead.
Hougang's misery compounded with late red
If losing a game they were expected to win comfortably wasn't enough, Hougang's day took a turn for the worse just two minutes after Saifullah's goal, as Korean centre back Kong Ho-won was dismissed, effectively ending any chances of a Hougang comeback. It's their second red card this season, after Justin Hui was sent off in the 5-1 loss to Tampines Rovers on opening day, and manager Clement Teo will have plenty to think about as he juggles his various suspensions.
With Tampines looking unstoppable in the Singapore Premier League this season, Hougang will need all their players fit and firing if they are to mount a serious challenge, and they can't do that if they're going to have to deal with constant suspensions throughout the season. They'll need to work on their discipline, and Clement Teo needs to sort this issue out if they're to compete for the title, or even challenge for an AFC Cup spot.
Brilliant Young Lions continue to impress
After their excellent showings in Mongolia over the international break, the future seems bright for Singapore football as this current crop continue to defy expectations.
Thought by many to be on the receiving end of a heavy loss against Hougang, they stuck to their guns and more than matched their opponents, coming away with a deserved win. It remains to be seen if they can keep this up over the course of the season, but if so, we could be in for a treat at this year's 2019 South East Asian Games.