SPL 2022: Sailors come from behind to defeat tactically-bold Hougang United 3-1 in season opener

Lion City Sailors' marquee signing Maxime Lestienne assists in short 15-minute cameo

Lion City Sailors skipper Hariss Harun closes in on Hougang United's Andre Francisco Moritz. PHOTO: LYNN LEE, SPORTPLUS.SG

28 February 2022, Singapore - The reigning champions survived an early scare courtesy of Hougang striker Pedro Bortoluzo’s early strike, but goals from Kim Shin Wook, Iqram Rifqi and Diego Lopes handed the Sailors all three points.

The familiar theme song of the Singapore Premier League rang loud around the Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday evening, signaling the much-anticipated return of the league after a four-month hiatus.

Both Sailors and Hougang had made statement signings during the off-season, and fans were eager to see them in action.

New Signings

The SPL champions were the biggest movers in the market, bringing in winger Maxime Lestienne, 29, from Belgian giants Standard Liege, defender Pedro Henrique, 29, as well as 1.98m-tall forward Kim Shin Wook, 33, who scored a brace in last week’s Community Shield.

After losing last season’s SPL top scorer Tomoyuki Doi to Fujieda MYFC, Hougang added European pedigree with former Crystal Palace midfielder Andre Moritz, 35, together with Brazilian forward Pedro Bortoluzo, 25.

Croatian midfielder Kristijian Krajcek, 28, signing from Balestier Khalsa, filled up their quota of three non-Asian foreigners.

Hougang United getting ready for kick-off. PHOTO: LYNN LEE, SPORTPLUS.SG

Singapore international Zulfahmi Arifin, 30, and last season’s top local goal scorer Amy Recha, 29, also joined the Cheetahs from Thai League 2 side Sukhothai FC and Geylang International respectively.

Hougang United's New Philosophy

Hougang went with an intrepid 4-3-3 shape, with tactician Clement Teo opting to play forward Shahfiq Ghani in a deep-lying central midfield role. New signing Bortoluzo was handed his debut start whilst Moritz had to settle for a place on the bench.

Teo’s brave approach paid dividends right from kick-off. Just seven minutes into the game, Amy Recha’s smart lofted ball into the semi-circle was chested down by Sahil Suhaimi onto Bortoluzo’s path.

Hougang United's Kaishu Yamazaki attempts to play his way out of defence. PHOTO: LYNN LEE, SPORTPLUS.SG

The Brazilian wasted no time to open his SPL account, unleashing a vicious left-footed volley beyond an outstretched Hassan Sunny to give Hougang a shock early lead.

Almost on cue, the away side’s hardcore fan group, known as the Hougang Hools, marched out in unison to the spectator’s stands, belting out lyrical chants at the top of their voices.

Sailors Regain Control

Despite going behind early, the Sailors remained calm in possession and continued to dominate the ball.

At the 14th minute mark, Defender Tajeli Salamat’s deep cross was not dealt with by the Hougang defence, allowing Song Ui-Young to volley narrowly wide of the post.

Nine minutes later, a trademark whipped freekick from Shahdan Sulaiman was met by the 1.98m-tall Kim Shin Wook, who rose highest to head past Hougang custodian Ridhuan Barudin, leveling the match for the Sailors.

Sailors' Uiyoung Song surrounded by Hougang United players. PHOTO: LYNN LEE, SPORTPLUS.SG

Song was in fine form for the home side. The Singapore international nearly gave them the lead with another spectacular volley from Saifullah Akbar’s lofted cross, only to be denied by Ridhuan.

Capitalising on Hougang’s insistence on playing short passes out of defence, Kim intercepted a pass from Hougang captain Nazrul before Song’s shot was blocked by right-back Muhaimin Suhaimi.

Hougang nearly restored their advantage on the stroke of half-time, when Kristijian Krajcek won the ball in midfield and played Bortoluzo through, but the 25-year-old took too long to get his shot away.

Moritz and Zulfahmi were introduced at the break, while Diego Lopes came on for the Sailors before the hour mark.

It took till the 63rd minute for the next big chance of the game. Pedro Henrique controlled a lofted pass from Iqram Rifqi and struck a powerful drive towards goal, which came crashing off the underside of the crossbar not just once but twice.

Uiyoung Song expresses his frustration after a missed opportunity. PHOTO: LYNN LEE, SPORTPLUS.SG

But just three minutes later, the SPL champions went ahead through the unlikeliest of sources. A cutback from substitute Hafiz Nor was curled into the net by left-back Iqram Rifqi; his first goal in a Sailors jersey.

Despite a promising start, Hougang’s midfielders were visibly tired past the hour mark which led coach Teo to bemoan fitness levels in his post-match interview.

The Cheetahs were repeatedly caught out on transition situations, and Lopes nearly added a third for the Sailors after a poorly weighted back pass from Zulfahmi to Ridhuan.

Answering repeated pleas from the home crowd, coach Kim finally introduced Maxime Lestienne on the 79th minute to raucous applause.

The Belgian winger showed his quality when instead of taking a badly-angled shot, he deftly played a cutback for Lopes, who slotted past an exposed Ridhuan in the penalty box to seal the opening day victory for the Sailors.

Hougang's Shawal Anuar (number 10) tries to find a way past Sailors' Iqram Rifqi. Photo: LYNN LEE, SPORTPLUS.SG

No Love Lost Between Rivals

Speaking after the game, coach Kim Do-Hoon was full of praise for his adversaries.

“They are a team that I think are very well organised tactically. How they came out today was different from my expectations,” Kim said.

“Clement is always trying to improve. As an opponent, it is always good to have someone working hard. I think it will create healthy competition in the league which is great for Singapore football,” he added.

About the blossoming partnership between Lopes and Lestienne, Kim was wary to isolate praise for the dynamic duo.

Lion City Sailors and Hougang United in an aerial duel. PHOTO: LYNN LEE, SPORTPLUS.SG

“It’s not just between them (Maxime and Diego), it needs to be within the rest of the players as well. This will take time and they are working hard in training. But I’m sure we’ll be able to see more good football from these two players in the future,” Kim said.

All eyes were on Maxime Lestienne when he came on, who cited problems with his match fitness.

“I’ve had one and a half months without a game before this one, but I felt good out there, and I’ll be working hard in training. What’s most important is that the team got the victory,” the Belgian said.

New Era for Cheetahs

On the opposing end, Cheetahs coach Clement Teo was honest in his assessment.

“We were not match-fit. That was our downfall. We were forcing the play in situations and we lost the ball in transitions,” he said.

However, according to coach Teo, there were many encouraging signs to takeaway despite the loss.

Hougang United's Kristijan Krajcek closely watched by Tajeli Selamat of Lion City Sailors. PHOTO: LYNN LEE, SPORTPLUS.SG

“In my three years, we have not played such positive football. Personally, I felt we could match them (Sailors). We want to carry on from that. We must change our mindset. We can’t compete financially, but we can compete tactically,” Teo added.

Hougang United will travel west to the Jurong East Stadium to take on Tanjong Pagar United next Sunday (6 Mar) for their second SPL fixture.

The Sailors will head east to face Geylang International at Our Tampines Hub this Friday (4 Mar).

Writer’s Assessment: A Transformed Hougang United

The Cheetahs demonstrated their commitment to play short passes from goal kicks, unafraid by the quality the reigning champions had on the pitch. This is a big change in philosophy compared to last season, when Hougang were known as an efficient counter-attacking team.

Set-up in a 2-3-5 shape in possession, coach Clement Teo made an unheralded tactical alteration, introducing inverted full-backs when Hougang were building out of the back. Muhaimin Suhaimi and Nazrul Nazari both tucked in as extra central-midfielders, while midfield interiors Krajcek and Sahil Suhaimi, a natural striker, pushed forward to support striker Bortoluzo.

The decision to play striker Shahfiq Ghani as a deep-lying midfielder was due to his ‘technical quality’ according to coach Teo, sacrificing defensive solidity for cleaner ball progression. This signals Hougang’s intention to play attractive attacking football, which is great for the league’s viewership.

However, such a drastic change in playing model needs time to implement, and whilst Hougang are on the right track, we could see games where calamitous defensive errors occur in a system where individual errors are magnified. There will also be occasions as coach Teo alluded to where they will be susceptible to counter attacks.

With their new game model, I believe we could see Hougang address their Achilles heel last season; their failure to beat weaker sides in the league. Expect to see goals galore in Hougang matches. If all goes to plan, we could see the Cheetahs race past their competitors in the AFC Cup happening later this year.

AIA Singapore Premier League 2022

Other Match Day 1 Results

Albirex Niigata (S) 0-2 Tanjong Pagar United

Balestier Khalsa 2-2 Tampines Rovers

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