TITLE CONTENDER, TAMPINES ROVERS HELD BY 10 MEN CHEETAHS, HOUGANG UNITED

HOUGANG UNITED 1
(Iqbal Hussain 70)
TAMPINES ROVERS 1

(Billy Mehmet 40 pen)

Tall and lanky, he bears a passing resemblance to Juventus dynamo Paul Pogba.

Sure, he is nowhere near the 23-year-old French international who has already played in a Champions League final, but Hougang United forward Iqbal Hussain is definitely an exciting prospect for Singapore football as his team continue to confound skeptics by continuing their fairytale run.

Last night at the Hougang Stadium, the 22-year-old came on as a 66th-minute substitute for Nur Na'iim Ishak and took just four minutes to score a brilliant solo goal to salvage a point for the 10-man Cheetahs against title favourites Tampines Rovers and preserve both their five-match unbeaten home record and their place in the S.League's top three.

Latching on to a misplaced pass by Irwan Shah, Iqbal purposefully strode into the Stags' penalty box, shaped to bend it into the top corner with his left foot, but cut past Afiq Yunos before stabbing home the equaliser, sparking jubilant scenes amid the 1,538-strong crowd.

This would be his first competitive goal in an Hougang shirt and his 11th in the S.League following previous stints at Gombak United and the Young Lions. His strike rate is one goal in 353 minutes, which is pretty decent for a local under-23 player.

Blessed with a cultured left foot, the 1.86m forward also notched a glorious cross-field assist for Raihan Rahman in Hougang's last home game, a 3-1 win over Geylang International.

Naturally, his coach K Balagumaran was full of praise for his young charge after a pulsating affair that came to life after Wahyudi Wahid was sent off in the 40th minute as he was the last man when he illegally prevented Hafiz Sujad from a clear scoring chance.

Billy Mehmet scored from the spot, but Hougang goalkeeper Khairulhin Khalin had an otherwise inspired performance between the sticks to deny Fazrul Nawaz, Shahdan Sulaiman and Mehmet from one-on-one opportunities.

Balagumaran said: "We were playing well even before we went 1-0 down, so even with a man down, I took the risk of bringing on an attacker because I know the boys don't want to lose at home.

"Last week I started Iqbal in our 3-2 loss to Home United and he didn't do so well. But I understand because he is still in National Service, and has to rush to trainings and matches straight after his NS shifts end.

"Sometimes he makes it just in time for kickoffs, and it's tough for him to settle down, which could explain why he has played better coming off the bench.

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"But he is a good player, with a good left foot, someone we can look upon to score important goals for us. I took a gamble to bring him on and I'm glad it paid off.

"It was a good finish considering the pressure we were under."

Indeed, with playmaker Fumiya Kogure injured with a fractured finger, two-goal midfielder Raihan and one-goal left-back Faiz Salleh suspended, and import forwards Jozef Kaplan and Stipe Plazibat draw blanks, Iqbal stepped up with the crucial goal.

The full-time national serviceman with the Singapore Civil Defence Force said: "It is not easy to juggle NS, wake up early for my 8-to-6 shift at Jalan Bahar and rush down for training and matches.

"But whenever I get the chance to play, I try my best to make a difference, to create or score. I'm happy to play my part tonight but credit to the team because it's not easy to play with 10 men.

"My ultimate aim is to represent my country on a regular basis. I have a couple of caps since my national debut against Papua New Guinea in 2014, and this being the Suzuki Cup year, I would like to stake my claim for a place in the Suzuki Cup squad and contribute to the national team.

"I believe I can continue to score and create goals for Hougang and I hope to get the chance to do it for Singapore."

He may get his wish soon as sources reveal that there is a high likelihood Iqbal will be call up for the national team that travel to Myanmar for a friendly quadrangular next month.

His latest heroics have helped Hougang stay in third place with 17 points after 10 games. Tampines are second with 21 points, two behind Albirex Niigata.

With former Arsenal and Liverpool winger Jermaine Pennant still feeling the ill effects of a hamstring complaint and ineffective coming on as a 64th-minute substitute, Tampines coach V Sundramoorthy must have wished he had someone like Iqbal to call upon from the bench.

He said: "It wasn't our best game today and I believe we were missing Jordan Webb and Jermaine Pennant who would have given us extra punch up front.

"We were punished because we didn't put away the chances we created. Our players are seasoned campaigners and they should now focus on the next game. What' done cannot be undone and we have to move on.
"We play Selangor on Tuesday to decide who goes through to the next round of the AFC Cup, and it is a dream match up at the National Stadium.

"It is the perfect stage for our players to step up and perform for people around Asia to see what they are capable of, and I'm confident we will step up."

HOUGANG UNITED: Khairulhin Khalid, Nazrul Ahmad Nazari, Yusiskandar Yusop, Wahyudi Wahid, Delwinder Singh, Fairoz Hasan (Huzaifah Aziz 83), Anumanthan Mohan Kumar, Nur Na'iim Ishak (Iqbal Hussain 66), Nurhilmi Jasni (Afiq Mat Noor 83), Jozef Kaplan, Stipe Plazibat

TAMPINES ROVERS: Izwan Mahbud, Noh Rahman, Mustafic Fahrudin, Afiq Yunos, Irwan Shah (Christopher van Huizen 77), Shahdan Sulaiman (Ismadi Mukhtar 66), Izzdin Shafiq, Yasir Hanapi, Hafiz Sujad, Fazrul Nawaz (Jermaine Pennant 64), Billy Mehmet

Photo credit: FAS

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