League Cup: Firdaus goal thwarts Young Lions
Photography by Aundry Gan
Home United started their quest for StarHub League Cup glory on a winning note as they edged a stubborn Courts Young Lions side 1-0 at Bishan Stadium on Thursday evening.
An early Firdaus Idros tap-in from Jeremy Chiang’s cross was enough to give the home side all three points, despite some fierce resistance from their Group C opponents.
After conceding the early goal, the visitors dominated possession throughout the match and pegged their more illustrious opponents back in their own half on numerous occasions.
On top of that, they threatened the Protectors’ goal with a couple of good chances, but Lionel Lewis, back in action for the first time since 17 June, showed superb form to earn the Protectors’ first clean sheet in more than ten weeks.
While the hopes of qualifying for the quarterfinals are slim for the Young Lions, they still have a chance to do so, with a victory against Hougang United in their next group match key to advancement.
They can certainly take heart from their performance, for it is not every day that teams come to Bishan and force Home into a defensive-minded game.
Young Lions head coach Robin Chitrakar was certainly proud of his charges despite their loss.
“I thought the boys did enough to get at least a point,” commented the 35-year-old.
“You can see that they were trying and pushing Home United on the back foot, especially towards the last half-hour. Home were packing their whole defence and I was really shocked at how they sat back and defended; it was not easy for us then.
“It is rare that Home United sit back against a young side like the Young Lions, but the boys did their very best and a draw might be a fair result.”
Chitrakar made a slew of changes to the side that defeated SAFFC in a league assignment on Sunday, with Fazli Ayob, Sherif El-Masri, Jonathan Toto and Zulfahmi Arifin replacing Shahfiq Ghani, Nazrul Ahmad Nazari, Syafiq Zainal and Shamil Sharif in the starting lineup.
Home meanwhile came into the match without the suspended Frederic Mendy, which allowed the attacking foursome of Qiu Li, Shotaro Ihata, Indra Sahdan Daud and Firdaus to start, while skipper Shi Jiayi started on the bench, as did Central African Republic defender Franklin Anzite.
The hosts started the match in perfect fashion, finding the breakthrough just six minutes in when Chiang sprinted past the defence after a neat one-two with a teammate down the left flank.
The 27-year-old neatly made his way into the area, before squaring the ball for Firdaus to tap into an empty net.
One might have thought that the cue for them to run their inexperienced opponents over, especially when it took some desperate defending to keep Firdaus from tapping in again on 14 minutes, but the Young Lions had other ideas.
The backline helmed by skipper Hafiz Abu Sujad soon settled, and they began to control the ball well, bringing it up smoothly from defence to attack.
El-Masri was outstanding on the left flank, in particular, and he was instrumental in leading the charge as the visitors sought to restore parity.
They created a couple of chances, with Toto’s shot deflected just wide, while Fazli stung the gloves of an alert Lewis with a volley after a corner was only half-cleared.
Firdaus dragged a shot wide after being set up nicely by Ihata at the other end, but it was in Home’s half that the action was really happening.
Fazli found the side netting after being up through by Benjamin Lee on 27 minutes, before the latter could have turned Fazli’s cross in if not for the swift intervention of Lewis.
Moments later, Sirina Camara delivered a peachy cross towards the middle for Toto, but the 21-year-old could not make sufficient contact and sent his free header over the bar.
Chances and possession were all going the Young Lions’ way, but although they were dominant, they could not find a goal before the break.
Chitrakar tried to switch things around in the second half, replacing Lee on the right with Nazrul to inject more pace into the attack.
But it was Home that made the bolder tactical switch, choosing to pack the defence with personnel in an attempt to defend their slender lead.
That gave the young visitors plenty of possession, but they were unable to create as many chances or look as threatening as they had done before the interval.
A rare Aqhari Abdullah shot was easy for Lewis, and the Protectors custodian was quick off his line to stop Nazrul after Chiang slipped to allow the 21-year-old a rare opening.
Nazrul also fired a shot from distance over the bar on 66 minutes as the Young Lions continued to hog possession.
There were no clear-cut chances for them, though, as Home did a good job holding the visitors away from the penalty area.
Shahfiq was eventually brought on for Fazli, but even the precocious starlet’s presence could not tip the balance the Young Lions’ way as he managed only a few stray shots.
A last roll of the dice came when Syafiq replaced El-Masri with ten minutes to go, but the Singapore Sports School graduate was unable to make an impact as the home side hung on to take all three points.
Protectors head coach Lee Lim Saeng was pleased to get off to a winning start in the League Cup tournament, and felt the points were more important than the margin.
“I am happy with the result,” said the Korean.
“The weather was very hot and humid, so the players looked a bit tired on the field. We did try to score more, but we thought that getting three points is more important than getting the goals in this match.”
Despite Shi and Anzite being left out of the starting eleven, Lee made it clear he was not going to go into this competition fielding second-stringers for the sake of it.
“We are now out of the RHB Cup, and our league position is not so good,” he said.
“So now in every match, we want to field our best players.”