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Bortoluzo’s stunning hat-trick helps Hougang United to crucial 4-2 win over Tampines Rovers

The Cheetahs leap beyond the Stags into fourth place after playing out a closely-contested six-goal entertainer that saw seven yellow cards dished out by referee Farhad Mohamed

Shawal Anuar (right) and Shahril Ishak celebrate Hougang United's goal at Hougang Stadium. PHOTO: AIA SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

Singapore, 19 June 2022 - As the great Winston Churchill once said, criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary.

In the face of acerbic criticism from fans and pundits alike, Hougang United stuck to their philosophy, corrected their flaws, and swiftly turned their season around.

The Cheetahs with a dogged display recorded a hard-fought 4-2 victory over AFC Cup rivals Tampines Rovers at the Hougang Stadium on Wednesday night.

From the months of March to May, Hougang went on a seven-game barren stretch managing just one win, a scrappy 2-1 victory over bottom-dwellers Young Lions, that resulted in the Cheetahs languishing in sixth-place at one point of the season.

This was a clash of utmost importance, as Hougang’s win saw them leapfrog Tampines (who have a game in hand) into fourth place with a one-point advantage.

Both teams are chasing the only guaranteed AFC Cup qualification slot via the league which is awarded to the second-best placed local team in the final standings. The other AFC Cup play-off spot will go to the winner of the 2022 Singapore Cup, to be held after the domestic league season concludes in October.

Having produced a total of 29 goals in their last four meetings, this fixture continued to live up to its glamour of having goals galore with both halves having an equal share of three goals apiece.

Tampines head coach Gavin Lee swapped his wing-backs from the 2-2 draw against Balestier on the weekend, bringing back Christopher van Huizen and Amirul Haikal, while Adam Reefdy was called upon to replace the injured Shuya Yamashita. Taufik Suparno was relegated to the bench as Firdaus Kasman came into midfield, pushing Yasir Hanapi into a more offensive role.

The away side started on the front foot, attempting to play out from the back against Hougang’s press and dominating possession for the first 10 minutes.

Boris Kopitovic of Tampines Rovers celebrates his goal but it didn't prove enough as the Stags slid to an SPL defeat at Hougang Stadium. PHOTO: AIA SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

Hougang struck first however, as a loose ball in the penalty area fell kindly into Amy Recha’s path – restored into the starting 11 ahead of Shawal Anuar – allowing him to fire a half-volley that was blocked by Tampines defender Adam Reefdy’s outstretched arm. Referee Farhad Mohamed awarded a spot-kick accordingly, which Pedro Bortoluzo tucked away for his fifth goal of the season.

Just minutes later, Tampines displayed slick one-touch passing in the final third to find left-wing-back Amirul Haikal unmarked on the edge of the penalty box. His laced-shot was calmly parried away by Hougang custodian Mukundan Maran.

Frustration was piling up for Gavin Lee’s boys, as Firdaus Kasman and Amirul Haikal both went into the book for mistimed tackles after Adam Reefdy was given a yellow card for conceding the penalty.

Controversy struck thereafter, as Tampines defender Irfan Najeeb appeared to have clattered into Sahil Suhaimi after he got a shot away in the penalty box, but only a goal kick was awarded.

Tampines drew level on the half hour mark courtesy of a moment of brilliance from Zehrudin Mehmedovic. The Stags’ nifty Serbian playmaker threaded an inch-perfect through ball in between the Hougang defence from the left-edge of the penalty box, perfectly weighted for midfield partner Kyoga Nakamura to finish with a simple tap-in.

It proved to be short-lived joy for Tampines, after a poor chipped pass from goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari towards van Huizen was stolen by Hougang’s Kristijian Krajcek. The Croatian winger rolled a cutback towards the feet of Bortoluzo who tapped home his second of the night from inside the six-yard box.

Hougang piled on the pressure after the interval, as Bortoluzo struggled to find his feet to complete his hat-trick from Krajcek’s low cross before the latter’s stinging shot was deflected over the bar.

Kyoga Nakamura (left) looks to dictate play in midfield for Tampines Rovers. PHOTO: AIA SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

Just as the Stags were looking down and defeated, up stepped the league’s top scorer Boris Kopitovic just before the hour mark. The Montenegrin was felled on the edge of the penalty box by Hougang’s Jordan Vestering, but duly picked himself up to curl the resulting set-piece into the bottom corner for his 17th goal of the season – also his fifth free-kick goal.

In a game of many twists and turns, Hougang regained their one-goal cushion shortly after as Bortoluzo finally completed his hat-trick with a diving header. A looping free-kick from Hougang’s set-piece specialist Zulfahmi Arifin was met by the 1.86m-tall striker, who stooped low and arched his back to connect with the cross.

The Cheetahs had the ball in the back of the net again in the 74th minute, but defender Lionel Tan’s header was ruled out for offside. Another golden opportunity was missed minutes later as Krajcek lashed a snapshot from Kaishu Yamazaki’s through pass.

Despite Tampines upping the tempo in the closing minutes, with Gavin Lee throwing on attacker Taufik Suparno to salvage the situation, the Stags were condemned to defeat after a loose ball in their penalty box was not dealt with. It was substitute Shawal Anuar who pounced, unleashing a left-footed strike into the bottom corner beyond goalkeeper Syazwan’s reach.

Stags head coach Gavin Lee was visibly disappointed at the full-time whistle but refused to blame the defeat on fatigue.

“Hougang had the same schedule as us. Before the equaliser (after half-time), we stuck to the plan and did very well. We did not help ourselves by conceding easy goals at the wrong moments today,” he said.

Bortoluzo of Hougang United nets a treble to help the Cheetahs to a 4-2 win over Tampines Rovers. PHOTO: AIA SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

Coach Gavin added that going with a back three was not an opponent-oriented tactical decision but rather keeping faith with the same system they have played since beating Geylang International 2-0 in June, before their AFC Cup run.

On the other side of the dugout, Cheetahs head coach Clement Teo was all smiles when approached for the post-match interview. He attributed Hougang’s good run of form to their recently-concluded AFC Cup campaign.

“When we went for our AFC Cup in Vietnam, we managed to get everyone to understand what we wanted to do for the team. We had very good team bonding, everyone enjoyed themselves and worked very hard. We brought it back to Singapore and there is much more belief (from the players) in what we can and want to do. What’s more important is that the team has gelled very well together,” he said.

When asked about Jordan Vestering’s return to the team, coach Clement added: “We know what we can expect from Jordan. He has done well. A natural left-footer at left-back especially as a young player helps us. We played Hafiz Sujad there (at the AFC Cup) who did really well, but we needed an under-23 player there (in the league) which Jordan suits well.”

Hougang will travel to the Jurong East Stadium to play third-placed Tanjong Pagar United next Sunday at 5.30pm as the battle for guaranteed AFC Cup qualification heats up. Tampines will attempt to arrest their slide in form when they host Young Lions at Our Tampines Hub on the same day and time.

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