Hougang United slumped to their sixth consecutive loss as they capitulated 0-2 at home to a hardworking Courts Young Lions side, who leapfrogged their opponents on Thursday evening to ninth place in the S.League standings.
Being used to cheering on their own Canadian winger in Jordan Webb, the Hougang home crowd could only watch as Webb’s fellow countryman Sherif El-Masri took the game by the scruff of its neck, scoring twice in the first half to hand the away side all three points.
El-Masri’s second goal provided a huge talking point for all present at Hougang Stadium, with the Cheetahs claiming there had been a foul on Ante Barac in the build-up.
But with referee P. Jeevanathan ignoring those pleas, the Young Lions broke quickly, and El-Masri drove the ball across Hougang goalkeeper Ridzuan Fatah Hassan to establish a lead his teammates were never going to relinquish.
“The referee didn’t blow for a clear foul, I think the 500 people in the stands could see that,” exclaimed the clearly aggrieved Cheetahs head coach Nenad Bacina.
The Croat was off by a bit in his estimate of the crowd – the official figure states more than 900 turned up for this game – and there was at least one other person who would side with the referee.
“I don’t think there was any foul; if there was one, it was him (Barac) who fouled us!” commented Young Lions head coach Robin Chitrakar, who also pointed out that the incident occurred right in front of his bench.
Putting the controversy aside, it was still a sweet effort from El-Masri, the ball hitting the post before nestling in the back of the net, putting the Young Lions firmly in the driver’s seat midway through the first half.
The former Home United man’s first goal had been struck no less sweetly, though he would owe much to a massive deflection that took his volley past a bemused Ridzuan, after Faris Ramli’s fifth-minute corner had been cleared to the edge of the box.
With defender Syaqir Sulaiman having to come off after 11 minutes due to a facial injury, it would be an understatement to say that the first quarter of the match had not proceeded according to Bacina’s plan.
If part of that plan was to get the ball up to Mamadou Diallo, then the Cheetahs head coach can claim a certain level of success, but the Guinean striker was particularly wasteful, despite finding himself within sight of goal on several occasions during the match.
One such occasion was on the stroke of half-time, when an Azhar Sairudin free kick fell to Diallo inside the penalty area. Twisting around, the striker could only hook the ball over the bar to the frustration of the home support.
By this time, the match was being played primarily in the Young Lions’ half, and this would continue on into the second period.
Yet despite the pressure from the home side, Young Lions custodian Syazwan Buhari was rarely troubled, apart from having to claim the occasional cross.
And when chances properly presented themselves, more profligate finishing was to be the Cheetahs’ undoing.
Diallo’s low cross on 66 minutes found Ignatius Ang around the penalty mark, but the 19-year-old striker could only sidefoot wide, failing to add to his solitary goal scored this season.
Syazwan’s first real save was to come just seconds later. A Barac free kick caused mayhem in the visitors’ penalty area, but the end result was a tame close-range header from giant defender Stanislav Vidakovic, which the custodian gratefully claimed under the crossbar.
A save of greater difficulty was required ten minutes from time, when Diallo blasted goalwards from just outside the area. Syazwan parried brilliantly back into play, and the Young Lions defence managed to clear the ball before the lurking Fazli Jaffar could pounce.
That clearance fell to Jonathan Toto near the halfway line, and if the Hougang players were expecting him to play the ball out so the grounded Diallo could receive treatment, they were badly mistaken.
Toto drove towards goal and bypassed the last defender, but his shot was kept out by the legs of Ridzuan, perhaps saving Toto from accusations of lack of sportsmanship that would surely have come from the home side.
Toto was not to rue his missed opportunity, though there was to be one last refereeing decision up for debate, as far as the home fans were concerned.
Webb was sent tumbling to ground four minutes from time, and the Hougang faithful bayed for a penalty. Jeevanathan awarded a free kick on the edge of the box instead, and when Diallo’s effort deflected harmlessly wide for a corner, so ended any remaining chance of a late Hougang comeback.
Bacina was noticeably displeased with the level of officiating on the night.
“I thought the two teams played very well, but the referee was not at that same level,” he remarked.
“I can accept mistakes as everyone makes mistakes, but the refereeing really wasn’t at a high level tonight.”
Still, the 40-year-old was satisfied with the spirit his players had shown, though the finishing had left a lot to be desired.
“I’m satisfied with the team performance and attitude,” he declared.
“You saw us in the second half, always trying to penetrate the Young Lions defence. But we just couldn’t put the ball across the line, be it from one metre or half a metre from the goalline.”
Such are the margins in football, but the fact remains that Hougang are experiencing a poor sequence of results, and Bacina admitted that the pressure on him was ever-increasing, possibly leading to the removal of the Croat from his post.
“Yes, it’s difficult for the players, but the coach is most responsible,” he stated.
“I will be sitting down with the management soon. I don’t know whether I will be able to bring something new to the team, but it may be that the best thing is for me to step down.”
The signs are looking ominous for Bacina and his team, but the head coach will be hoping that success in the RHB Singapore Cup will steady the ship, at least until their league season resumes in June.
Hougang did remarkably well in both domestic cups last year, and a similar showing, starting with victory in the first round of the RHB Singapore Cup against Tanjong Pagar United, may be the key to rescuing a fast deteriorating season.
Things look a lot rosier for the Young Lions, who have now picked up ten points in their last five games after mustering just one in their opening seven.
Chitrakar was understandably pleased, especially since Hougang had triumphed at their Jalan Besar Stadium home earlier this season.
“It was definitely a tough game for us; we lost 3-0 the last time!” he quipped.
“Now to come here and win, that’s a very good thing for us.
“But we shouldn’t be happy at this point. It’s definitely not going to be easy against Home United!”
Bishan beckons in just three days, after a gruelling schedule had seen them play against Tampines Rovers and Albirex Niigata (Singapore) last week, but the Young Lions have the comfort of knowing they have an extended break after that, with their non-participation in the RHB Singapore Cup.
Time will tell if that works to their benefit or detriment, but one suspects Chitrakar and his charges would not mind if this good rhythm of games continues for just a while longer.
Article taken from sleague.com, written by A. Ong
CYL Line up:
Syazwan Buhari, Al-Qaasimy Rahman, Faritz Abdul Hameed, Sirina Camara, Sheikh Abdul Hadi, Fazli Ayob (Neil Vanu 81″), Hafiz Abu Sujad (C), Faris Ramli (Benjamin Lee 69″), Aqhari Abdullah (Shamil Sharif 86″), Sherif El-Masri, Jonathan Toto