Hougang not pulling punches against Albirex in SPL finale
|HOUGANG UNITED||ALBIREX NIIGATA|
Albirex Niigata’s title destiny is in their own hands, but Hougang United aim to spoil the party for local pride, as the Singapore Premier League wraps up its curtailed 2020 campaign on Saturday (Dec 5).
SPL leaders Albirex, who meet Hougang at Hougang Stadium, hold a one-point lead over Tampines Rovers who host Geylang International in the Eastern Derby at Our Tampines Hub.
Albirex will lift their fourth title in five years if they match or better Tampines’ result and, in doing so, will extend foreign teams’ stranglehold on the championship to six years.
Brunei DPMM started the run in 2015 and won the league title again last year, but were unable to defend their crown due to coronavirus-enforced travel restrictions.
However, Hougang coach Clement Teo said his side would do everything in their power to help a local side taste glory since Warriors FC lifted the trophy in 2014.
“It’s been a long time since a local team won the championship,” Teo told The New Paper.
“It has been six years, that is not something any local league wants and I hope it happens (Tampines winning the title). Of course, we are playing against a very energetic and young Albirex team. So it’s going to be a challenge.
“I have to give credit to Albirex, they have put in a lot of hard work and the coach has done a good job to produce the standard that they are at.
“My boys have done well, they have worked their socks off and they are not going to pull any punches on Saturday, that’s for sure...
“We want to end the season in a way we will be remembered, that these players will be remembered for something that they pulled off.”
It would indeed prove to be a tough proposition for the Cheetahs, who have garnered just two wins in their last nine games – falling out of AFC Cup contention in the process.
Hougang, who lost 4-0 in the reverse fixture at the Jurong East Stadium last month, will also be fielding an all-local line-up, having released their foreign players. But Albirex coach Keiji Shigetomi is not taking the game for granted.
“We have to play our best and get the three points,” he said.
“Hougang have many good players such as Shawal Anuar, Shahfiq Ghani, Anders Aplin and Hafiz Sujad, some of whom are national players... So we have to be aware of their strengths and threats.”
Capping off their season with the title would be especially remarkable as the White Swans would have managed to do so with the second youngest squad in the league, with an average age of 21.62. Only the Young Lions have a lower average age at 19.65.
And Shigetomi is expecting his young charges to go into the pressure-cooker situation at Hougang Stadium no different from every other game before.
“There is always pressure for every football match as we look to do our best and win. It is important for our team to concentrate on doing what we do best,” the 41-year-old said.
If Hougang do pull off an upset, then, perhaps, the White Swans would need an unlikely ally in fifth-placed Eagles, who are chasing the final AFC Cup spot.
Tampines have earned a historic qualification to the group stage of next season’s AFC Champions League via their finish as the best local side and the Lion City Sailors have secured one of two AFC Cup spots.
Geylang will need to better fourth-placed Balestier Khalsa’s result against the Sailors to seal the remaining continental spot.
Said Eagles coach Noor Ali: “We definitely are going for the AFC Cup spot. It will be sad to see a foreign side winning the league but, that said, whoever win the title, will be deserving champions.”
Both Noor Ali and Stags coach Gavin Lee are expecting a tough encounter at Our Tampines Hub on Saturday, which would be played out in front of 200 fans as part of a pilot test.
“Like every Eastern Derby, it will be very competitive, very intense and it will be an exciting game for the fans,” said Lee, whose side have managed one win, two draws and one defeat against Geylang in their last four league meetings.
“It is fantastic to have the fans back. It will definitely gives us the extra stimulus, the extra boost for this game. Also, we are all very excited to see the people who have been very loyal with their support even though they couldn’t be in the stadium all these months.”
Lee also insisted that his side have put Wednesday’s dispiriting 1-1 draw with the Sailors behind them. The result handed the title initiative back to Albirex.
“Naturally everyone is disappointed (following the draw with Sailors),” Lee said.
“But I’ve been very fortunate to have good senior players, very good role models, strong characters, so I don’t need to pick them up. They all want to go and get it, they won’t give up and they will keep fighting.”
Apart from the title challenge and the chase for the AFC Cup spot, there is also the battle to avoid finishing bottom of the eight-team SPL standings.
That contest would be a direct face-off between seventh-placed Young Lions (six points) against Tanjong Pagar United (five points) at the Jurong East Stadium.