(Stipe Plazibat 82)


Are we seeing the S.League’s own version of Leicester City? Last year, they finish last, but after five games of the new season, Hougang United find themselves at the top of the table for the first time in their history with 10 points after beating Balestier Khalsa 1-0 at the Hougang Stadium last night.

In a week where defending champions Brunei DPMM lost 2-1 at home to Tampines Rovers, and former league leaders Albirex Niigata beaten 2-0 by Warriors FC, K Balagumaran’s men took full advantage and will now stay top by two points until April Fools’ Day because of international fixtures.

Their lofty position is no joke though. Like the Foxes, the Cheetahs are an unfashionable side, but has seemed to somehow find the right blend of graft and goals to lead the league.

Just as Leicester beat Crystal Palace 1-0, Hougang now have two wins by the same margin in five games, after beating Home United 1-0 in their opening match. Khairulhin Khalid also now has a league-high three clean sheets along with Geylang International’s Syazwan Buhari.

Up front, Stipe Plazibat is doing a Jamie Vardy and has five goals in five games, joining Warriors striker Jonathan Behe at the summit of the topscorers’ list. His latest effort was a header into an open goal after Jozef Kaplan had beaten Zaiful Nizam to Fumiya Kogure’s 82nd-minute free-kick. It wasn’t a beauty, but they all count.

Truth be told, both teams had chances to win the match as Kaplan and Plazibat missed one-on-ones for Hougang and Jamil Ali lobbed Khairulhin just wide for the Tigers, who also found the top of the net on two occasions.

But it was a night to savour for the Hougang faithful, who cleverly countered the S.League’s ban on sparklers by firing bubble guns instead. Balagumaran said: “Our target it to finish in the top half but I never expected us to be top of the league after five games.

“We will take it, of course. But I’m not happy with our performance because I know we can play better than this. Balestier could have won the match tonight. “I had wanted to replace Kaplan with Na’iim (Ishak) twice, but we got a throw in, and then the free-kick, so I kept him on and he managed to set up Stipe. “We were lucky in that aspect but in football, you need luck sometimes to win.”

With 19 matches to go, the Cheetahs are refusing to get carried away and M Anumanthan said: “Of course it’s nice to see us on top of the league table, but it’s very early in the season. “We didn’t celebrate in the dressing room, we will be back at training, and we just want to keep improving, keep the ball better, defend better. If we do all these, I believe the good results will follow.”

Hougang’s surprise success also begs the question why they were not represented in Bernd Stange’s 23-man national team squad to take on Myanmar in a friendly on March 24 at Jalan Besar, before the World Cup/Asian Cup qualifier against Afghanistan on March 29 in Tehran.

“I feel players like Anumanthan, with his strength and aggression in midfield, and Nazrul, who keeps overlapping and providing crosses as a right back, deserve to be in the national team,” said Balagumaran.

“It is up to the national team selectors, but I just hope our players will keep working hard and get the call-up they deserve in the near future.”
In a season of resurgence, the competitive nature of the S.League is also proven by the group of four – Tampines, Albirex, Warriors FC and Brunei DPMM – bunched up on eight points.

With the exception of the developmental side Garena Young Lions, each of the other eight clubs, even Balestier who have gone five league games without a win, look truly capable of beating, or at least stealing a point off a fellow S.League side. This bodes well for Singapore’s professional football league, and long may the bubbles blow.

HOUGANG UNITED: Khairulhin Khalid, Nazrul Nazari, Delwinder Singh, Faiz Salleh, Wahyudi Wahid, Fairoz Hasan (Huzaifah Aziz 69), Raihan Rahman, M Anumanthan, Jozef Kaplan (Nur Na’iim Ishak 83), Fumiya Kogure (Afiq Noor 90), Stipe Plazibat

BALESTIER KHALSA: Zaiful Nizam, Fadli Kamis, Sheikh Abdul Hadi, Hanafi Salleh, Nurullah Hussein, Fazli Ayob, Emir Lotinac, Gary Loo (Miroslav Kristic 85), Hazzuwan Halim (Syafiq Zainal 71), Smajovic Sadin, Fadhil Noh (Jamil Ali 39)

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