Hougang rue missed chances
But coach Bala confident players can finish strongly in league campaign
HOUGANG UNITED 1
(Stipe Plazibat 8)
BALESTIER KHALSA 1
(Syafiq Zainal 69)
Hougang United are hanging on to fourth spot, and the second of two AFC Cup spots on offer for local clubs, by just one point, after squandering numerous chances in a 1-1 draw against Balestier Khalsa in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League last night.
Croatian striker Stipe Plazibat gave the hosts a dream start in the eighth minute at the Hougang Stadium when he latched on to a long ball on the left, outmuscled Balestier right back Fadhil Noh, before clinically placing his shot beyond Zaiful Nizam for his 16th league goal of the season.
The Cheetahs proceeded to dominate the first half as they sought to kill off the tie early, but the Tigers often frustrated them with their physical game.
Hougang managed to create clear chances towards the end of the half, most notably when skipper Jozef Kaplan set up Fumiya Kogure in the box in the 40th minute, only for the Japanese playmaker to conjure up a weak shot that Zaiful managed to save.
Shortly after, Balestier winger Fazli Ayob was stretchered off with what looked like a broken ankle, Hougang midfielder Anumanthan Mohan Kumar released Iqbal Hamid Hussain clear on goal, only for the forward's lob to come off the bar.
K Balagumaran's side paid for their profligacy in the 69th minute, when Syafiq Zainal pounced on a loose ball on the edge of the area to equalise.
With the draw, Hougang remain the second-best local team behind Tampines Rovers, one point ahead of Home United.
"We should have finished them off in the first half when we dominated and created good chances," said Balagumaran. "Our boys played well, it's just that we need to improve on our finishing.
"I still believe that we can get the job done in our last three games against Albirex, Geylang and Warriors. It all boils down to our mentality and experience.
"Look, there are no easy games. Not for us, not for Home United, who also have to play Balestier, Albirex and Geylang.
"Look at how hard Balestier fought, look at how Warriors beat Albirex 2-0, even though they have nothing to play for but pride.
"It is going to be an exciting end to the season for everyone involved."
Balestier coach Marko Kraljevic admitted his side were fortunate to go into half-time only a goal down, after being well marshalled by the makeshift Hougang centre-back duo of midfielders Nurhilmi Jasni and Raihan Abdul Rahman.
"We greatly missed the physical presence of our three imports, defensive player Emir (Lotinac, calf injury) and forwards Niko (Tokic, knee injury) and Miroslav (Kristic, stomach flu)," said Kraljevic, whose side are eighth in the nine-team league.
"I was disappointed with our first half because we were trying to take shortcuts and yes, we could have been down by a bigger margin. But we also have a mentally-strong team and with a better final pass, we could even have won the match."
TNP MAN OF THE MATCH: Nurhilmi Jasni (Hougang United)