League Cup: Cheetahs show strength to advance
Photography by Lee Jian Wei
Hougang United sealed their place in the StarHub League Cup quarterfinals, along with Group C seeds Home United, after they defeated the Courts Young Lions 2-1 in their pool match at Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday evening.
Mamadou Diallo opened the scoring for last season’s runners-up after just six minutes, and Azhar Sairudin sealed the points with a well-placed shot outside the box six minutes from time.
Despite Young Lions skipper Hafiz Abu Sujad forcing a tense finale with a nice finish in injury time, their second successive defeat in the competition relegated them to the plate tournament, where they will face fellow eliminated side Tanjong Pagar United.
Young Lions head coach Robin Chitrakar rang in a few changes from the side that lost to the Protectors at Bishan three days ago.
Danish winger Benjamin Lee was omitted amid claims of a groin strain and was replaced by Nazrul Ahmad Nazari on the right, while Shahfiq Ghani started in place of Fazli Ayob, who was relegated to the bench.
Hougang’s Nenad Bacina also made some switches from the side that had held Home to a 1-1 draw in the league the previous weekend.
Club top scorer Jordan Webb sat out owing to a suspension carried over from the 2011 edition, and Croat defender Stanislav Vidakovic was confirmed as a long-term casualty after injuring his knee in their last outing.
Fadhil Salim and Faizal Amir were left on the bench, with skipper Lau Meng Meng, Ridzuan Fatah Hassan, Sobrie Mazelan and Syaqir Sulaiman preferred in the starting eleven.
The Cheetahs threatened to score as early as the second minute, when they were awarded a direct free kick outside the box, but the effort from Ante Barac went over without troubling Young Lions goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari.
Agony was turned into ecstasy for the playmaker four minutes later, when his 50-yard free kick deep down the right was misread by the inexperienced Syazwan and Guinean striker Diallo directed the ball into an empty net with his head.
The 31-year-old nearly doubled the lead for the visitors himself on 15 minutes when his stinging shot outside the box flew over, while Diallo forced a superb save off Syazwan with his strong effort soon after.
While Hougang were enjoying the lion’s share of play, it must be said that the Young Lions made their lives easier in the first half with stray passes in midfield that allowed the white shirts to regroup and launch fresh attacks.
The closest the hosts got to testing the two-time League Cup runners-up in the first half was well into added time, when Sherif El-Masri crossed from the left and saw Shahfiq’s resulting header going straight into Ridzuan’s arms.
Aware that they were 45 minutes from elimination in the main event, the Young Lions stepped up their game after the break and dominated possession early in the second half.
As was the case against Home a few days before, though, the red shirts found it difficult to find a way past a stubborn Hougang backline.
With only two off-target efforts midway in the second half to show for, they nearly found themselves falling further behind when Hougang threatened again in the final quarter-hour of the game.
Sobrie came very close to repaying Bacina’s faith in giving him a rare start when he squandered one shot and one header in the space of three minutes.
But Azhar saved his teammate’s blushes with a well-executed low grounder off a Barac free kick played low from the right on 84 minutes to virtually seal the points and qualification into the next stage.
The Young Lions were not going to go down without a fight, though, and an injury-time counterattack led by French striker Jonathan Toto found Hafiz unmarked on the left.
The 21-year-old raced in and slotted home past a sprawling Ridzuan to reduce the deficit.
The Cheetahs nearly restored their two-goal cushion immediately after when a one-two between substitute Nurhilmi Jasni and Sobrie sent the former clear inside the box.
His effort from a very narrow angle beat Syazwan, but bobbled across the goal.
Toto and Hafiz then combined at the other end to threaten once again, but Ridzuan was more than equal to the swerving shot as he palmed it away and secured his side’s opening win of their League Cup campaign.
Chitrakar was left rueing another missed opportunity for his side as he spoke on his anguish in seeing them complete the group stage with a record of two losses in both group games.
“The early goals we conceded against Home and Hougang quickly demoralised our boys,” he lamented.
“In both games, we didn’t have the best of starts and conceded goals from free kicks. We have to learn to be more alert and settle down more quickly.
“The boys tried to come back and moved the ball much more quickly in the second half, but we couldn’t capitalise on our late chances until the goal.”
Meanwhile, Bacina was pleased to see his side come out with all three points with the effort they put in for the win.
“We controlled much of the game, especially in the first half,” he said.
“We closed them down on the flanks, especially where Sherif was. We were aggressive enough and tried to stop his delivery of crosses, which were the reasons why we put the pressure on them up front.
“We won a lot of possession in the final third, particularly in the first 45 minutes, after the pressure we exerted to their midfield. In the second half, they appeared to have more possession, but we were more dangerous up front.”
The former SAFFC anchor noted that the victory was a vindication of his decision to rotate some players in the lineup.
“For us as a club, we are hungry to go as far as possible,” he continued.
“Some players who have not played regularly will have a chance, and I have been placing a particular emphasis on us keeping our shape and system.
“The players knew how to control last couple of minutes and keep their emotions down against the Young Lions. That’s why we won and deserved to go into the quarterfinals.”