Cheetahs out to protect local pride
Hougang want to avoid becoming third local team to exit Singapore Cup
|HOUGANG UNITED||CERES NEGROS|
The first two games of this season's RHB Singapore Cup have seen Cambodian teams Boeung Ket and Naga World eliminate S.League sides Warriors FC and Balestier Khalsa respectively.
Hougang United will be eager to avoid becoming the third local club to be dumped out at just the preliminary round when they take on Philippines Football League outfit Ceres Negros on their home ground tonight.
Cheetahs coach Philippe Aw said: "We want to stop the trend of foreign teams progressing at the expense of the local S.League clubs.
"Local pride is at stake and we want to give them a good game."
Going by both teams' pedigree and results this season, that seems like a tall order.
While they are both fourth from bottom in their respective domestic leagues, Ceres are clearly the stronger side as they boast seven Philippine internationals and are also in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup Asean zonal Finals after beating 2015 champions Johor Darul Ta'zim of Malaysia.
Aw said: "They are the best foreign team in the draw.
"They beat JDT in the AFC Cup and they are in the Asean zone Finals not by chance.
"They have quality imports like former Sevilla striker Fernando Rodriguez and some of their local players have mixed parentage. Stephan Schrock is one of them and he has Bundesliga experience, too.
"They are physically tough and will go in strong for 50-50 challenges, so we need to be ready."
Even though the international break deprived them of four players - defenders Nazrul Nazari and Lionel Tan, midfielder Zulfahmi Arifin and forward Amir Zalani - Hougang did not let their training intensity drop this fasting month.
"We like to keep the ball, play short passing football on the ground and I re-emphasised that during this period," said Aw.
"Defensively we are sound, we have not conceded too many (12 in 10 league games), but we have a problem when it comes to scoring (nine in 10 games).
"Of our three strikers, our import Pablo Rodriguez is off-form, Fareez Farhan was injured and Iqbal Hussain will be unavailable due to National Service until his operationally ready date next month.
"But the positive is Fareez is fully fit now and we will need his good sense of goal-scoring.
"Our first Singapore Cup match is not going to be easy, but it's not impossible either.
"This is a one-off cup game and, if we work together and with the backing of our dedicated fans, we can upset the odds.
"Ceres are the biggest hurdle so, if we can overcome that, it will give us the belief we can do well in this competition."
In his first season in charge of Hougang, Aw admitted that he is not pleased with their current sixth position in the nine-team S.League, but is optimistic they will move up the table.
He said: "I am not a magician and I will need time to turn things around and play the brand of football that we want.
"If we can solve our scoring problems, we will climb up the table. With a long-term vision, I'm confident we will be able to do well in time to come."
Meanwhile, Ceres coach Risto Vidakovic, 48, revealed his team are not at their best as Manuel Ott, Jeffrey Christiaens and Omid Nazari are injured.
The Serb said: "We have 19 squad players, so it is not easy to rotate for three competitions and keep the same quality.
"Since we have reached the zonal Finals, the AFC Cup is obviously the more important tournament for us, followed by our domestic league, because doing well in the continental competition will be good for club and country.
"That also means our players have had many games, especially the seven national players that we have. That's one of the reasons we rested some of them on Saturday and lost 2-1 in a league match against Voltes.
"The truth is we cannot play our best 11 even if we wanted to because of injuries, but we respect the Singapore Cup and we will try our best."