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Hougang United: The unassuming underdogs of S.League
Coach Balagumaran credits good balance in the team for Cheetahs' rise to the top
ALBIREX NIIGATA v
(Tomorrow, 7.30pm, Jurong East Stadium)
Surprise league leaders, fuelled by an in-form striker, backed by an indefatigable Japanese forward and led by a "chill" coach.
No, we're not talking about Leicester City, Jamie Vardy, Shinji Okazaki and Claudio Ranieri, who are on the verge of leading the Foxes to their maiden English Premier League title.
Instead, on our home soil, Hougang United are turning heads by leading the 2016 Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League for the first time in their history, with Stipe Plazibat grabbing five goals in five games, Fumiya Kogure pulling the strings in midfield and coach K Balagumaran adopting alternative training methods.
And the Cheetahs are keeping their fair share of clean sheets too, shutting out Home United (1-0), defending champions Brunei DPMM FC (0-0) and Balestier Khalsa (1-0), all at the Hougang Stadium.
With almost a brand new squad, few expected Hougang, last season's bottom side, to make much of an impact this year, even though they pulled off a transfer coup by signing 2015 S.League Player of the Year Kogure in pre-season.
Friendly results were a mixed bag as they beat amateur side Tiong Bahru 3-1 and the Garena Young Lions 4-2, but lost 2-0 to Tampines Rovers and Albirex Niigata, 3-2 to Warriors FC and were also defeated by Thai sides Suphanburi 2-1 and Air Force Central 3-1.
But, once the season started, they found a great balance between being hard to beat and finding the odd winner, amassing 10 points out of a possible 15 to lead the league by two going into the latest round of matches.
"Beating Home United in our first game really gave our boys the belief that we can do well and win games," said Bala, who is a firm believer in using yoga to calm and clear his players' minds pre- and post-match.
"There is good balance in our team. We have set-piece specialists in Fumiya and Stipe who can help us break deadlocks, and our local boys are keeping their heads down and doing well with our home fans showing great support.
"Nobody expected us to top the table and nobody expects us to continue to do so. Our target remains to finish in the top half and it's a challenge for the boys to see how long they can keep this up.
"We are the underdogs in every match, but I want every of our players to give of his best and the results should follow.
"We can do better in terms of finishing. Right now, it seems we are converting the tougher chances than the easy ones.
"I need Fumiya, (Jozef) Kaplan, Fairoz (Hasan) and even the midfielders and defenders to start scoring, so that we are not over-reliant on Stipe, who has done great to score all our goals (Hougang's only other goal was a Taufiq Muqminin own goal)."
Tomorrow, the Cheetahs will face an out-of-form Albirex Niigata whose players have failed to score in 285 minutes since they thrashed Garena Young Lions 5-0 in February.
Former Albirex player Kogure will put sentiment aside on his return to his former stomping ground at the Jurong East Stadium, as he eyes his first goal in Hougang colours.
The 26-year-old Japanese playmaker said: "Albirex are still a very good team even if they are not doing so well in recent games (the White Swans eked out a 1-1 draw against Balestier via an own goal, were held to a goalless draw by Geylang International and lost 2-0 to Warriors FC).
"They have good players such as Masaya Jitozono, Tatsuro Inui and Atsushi Kawata who are potential match-winners.
"They seem to play more long balls this season compared to last year, when they played more possession-based football.
"We have to be careful, but we are feeling good right now because there is a good atmosphere, good balance, good discipline and good communication under a good coach.
"Personally, I want a goal soon. I must score for the team and it would be special to get my first for Hougang against Albirex and beat them."