SPL 2022: Tanjong Pagar snatch late equaliser against Hougang to Go Top after Matchweek 2

Frantic final 20 minutes sees Shodai Nishikawa level for Jaguars after goals from Hougang’s Nazrul Nazari and Kaishu Yamazaki looked to seal win for Hougang United

Shodai Nishikawa stoops to conquer as he heads home from close range to equalise for Tanjong Pagar United. PHOTO: AIA SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

Singapore, 7 March 2022 - Tanjong Pagar United kept up their unbeaten start to the 2022 AIA Singapore Premier League by holding Hougang United to a 2-2 draw, with all four goals arriving in the final 20 minutes at the Jurong East Stadium.

Home coach Hasrin Jailani, 46, remained coy about his team’s prospects despite going top of the SPL table after the first two rounds of matches for the first time since 2001.

“The most important thing is to enjoy the moment. In 2020 we were bottom all the way without a win. There’s nothing much we can do right now but be happy where we are and to keep working hard,” said coach Hasrin.

The Jaguars continued with their 3-5-2 shape that saw them achieve a shock opening-day victory against Albirex. Experienced midfielder Raihan Rahman, 31, came in for the injured Rusyaidi Salime, 23, the only enforced change from last week.

COVID hit Cheetahs

Hougang were hit by a bout of COVID-19 cases and could only name six players on the bench. Brazilian midfielder Andre Moritz, 35, was handed his debut start, defender Lionel Tan, 24, returned to captain the side, whilst eclectic winger Amir Zalani, 25, started his first match of the season.

The home side nearly got off to the best possible start when Hougang scrambled to clear a Shodai Nishikawa freekick during the first minute of the game. Tanjong Pagar captain Faritz Hameed rose highest to a loose ball, but his looping header sailed inches wide of the post.

Hougang regained control of the game, nearly breaking the deadlock when winger Shawal Anuar displayed neat footwork to beat his man to release Moritz, whose shot from the left edge of the penalty area went over the crossbar.

The Hougang Hools responded with vigour, displaying their support for their star man with simultaneous chants of “There’s only one Andre Moritz”.

The Cheetahs had the ball in the back of the net in the 32nd minute, but Shawal Anuar’s smart finish was disallowed for offside.

Khairul Nizam opens the scoring for Tanjong Pagar United at the Jurong East Stadium. PHOTO: AIA Singapore Premier League

Moments later, it was Tanjong Pagar’s turn to go close. After a neat one-two with fellow countryman Reo Nishiguchi, wing-back Shodai Nishikawa could only manage to pull a left-footed strike just wide of Hougang goalkeeper Ridhuan Bahrudin’s near post.

The away side started the half on the front foot, and almost took the lead in the 57th minute when a good counter-attack saw Shawal Anuar deliver an inch-perfect cross only for left wing-back Nazrul Nazari to strike straight at Jaguars’ custodian Zharfan Rohaizad in the six-yard area.

Controversy: Should Nishiguchi have seen Red?

Controversy struck on the hour mark, when Jaguars striker Reo Nishiguchi appeared to have lashed out at Hougang’s right wing-back Muhaimin Suhaimi after the former was pulled back. Referee Jansen Foo showed yellow to both players, but Nishiguchi could count himself lucky to still have been on the pitch.

It took till the 72nd minute for the floodgates to open, when a perfectly-threaded through ball by Tanjong Pagar midfielder Mirko Sugic found Shodai Nishikawa, whose cutback was turned into the net by substitute striker Khairul Nizam.

Just five minutes later however, Hougang would hit back twice in the space of three minutes. Moritz’s lofted through ball found its way to Nazrul, who made no mistake this time in a one-versus-one situation to level the game.

Hougang United's Amir Zalani (left) doing battle with Tanjong Pagar United's skipper Faritz Abdul Hameed. PHOTO: AIA Singapore Premier League

Capitalising on their momentum, the Cheetahs found inspiration through midfield maestro Kaishu Yamazaki. Playing an intricate forward pass to substitute Sahil Suhaimi, the Japanese continued his marauding run to receive a wall pass and slotted past Zharfan to give Hougang the advantage momentarily.

Just when Hougang thought they did enough for all three points, a lapse in concentration in the 89th minute denied them a memorable come-from-behind victory.

Reo Nishiguchi was unmarked at the far post, and his header across goal was turned in by Shodai Nishikawa to give the home side a share of the spoils, concluding a pulsating final 20 minutes.

Coach Hasrin said after the game: “In the last 10 minutes it was anybody’s game. Nobody gave us a chance, but we kept going and managed to get a draw. I think it’s a fair result.”

Hougang assistant coach Firdaus Kassim, 34, refused to blame injuries or COVID-19 absentees, one of them being playmaker Kristijian Krajcek, 28, whose passing ability from midfield could have been a game changer.

Kaishu Yamazaki celebrates putting Hougang United in the lead. PHOTO: AIA SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE

“We can only manage players who are available to us. What’s more important is that the players selected to play are able to execute the game plan from the beginning,” coach Firdaus said.

“Against Tanjong Pagar who play with five at the back, it is difficult to try to break down teams like that. I think we are able to create chances, and at the end of the day finishing is what the players have to sharpen,” he added.

Coach Firdaus also doubled down on Hougang’s rebrand to a team with attacking intent from back to front.

“This is a new way of playing in terms of our team’s philosophy and vision. Of course, there will be teething issues. I wish we would have a lot more friendly games to try things out and correct things. But it is a long season, mistakes will happen for sure, but I think it is very entertaining and I really enjoyed watching us in possession,” he said.

Hougang will host Geylang International at the Hougang Stadium this Friday (11 Mar), where they will be looking to get their first win of the season.

Tanjong Pagar will travel to the Tigers’ lair at the Toa Payoh Stadium, facing Balestier Khalsa this Saturday (12 Mar), looking to maintain their unbeaten start.

AIA Singapore Premier League 2022

Other Gameweek 2 Results

Geylang International 1-0 Lion City Sailors Fri, 3 Mar 2022, Our Tampines Hub

Albirex Niigata 6-0 Balestier Khalsa Sat, 4 Mar 2022, Jurong East Stadium

Writer’s Assessment

Sticking to their attacking philosophy, Hougang altered their formation to play a 3-4-3 with Singapore international Zulfahmi Arifin playing on the left-side of defence. The versatile Kaishu Yamazaki returned to midfield to assume the role of a deep-lying playmaker, showing his willingness to play penetrative passes into the final third; a difference maker in the team.

This tactical change allowed for the Cheetah’s fullbacks to push up the pitch to offer width whilst their skillful wingers were instructed to play closer to striker Pedro Bortoluzo, which added to their attacking threat.

Assistant Coach Firdaus Kassim said “In terms of build-up, we invite the pressure to create spaces for others further up the pitch. We try to keep passing distances short. Passes are more accurate, and it allows the next player to receive the pass as early as possible to move the ball to the next option.”

Hougang were error-prone when playing out of the back but that will only improve over time. The Cheetahs are still laying the groundwork to play sustainable attacking football in the years to come. Playing against another transition-based team in Geylang next week, Hougang fans must be patient for results to eventually come.

For Tanjong Pagar, Fathullah Rahmat’s brief stint as a middle centre-back in a back three against Albirex proved to be short-lived; he returned to the midfield trio alongside Blake Ricciuto and Mirko Sugic.

As coach Hasrin reiterated his desire for Fatullah to play in midfield, it would be interesting to see healthy competition amongst the Jaguars’ midfielders once Rusyaidi and Faizal Raffi return to full fitness.

Mirko Sugic proved to be the creative spark in the middle of the park, dovetailing well with Blake Ricciuto’s combative presence and aggressive ball-winning ability. As the two foreigners gradually grow to learn the nooks and crannies of each other’s games, Tanjong Pagar could be a dark horse in this season’s race for the AFC Cup spots.

The Jaguars have found solidity in their compact defensive shape that two of the league’s most attacking teams have found trouble breaking down. However, it remains to be seen how Tanjong Pagar will fare when teams allow them to dominate possession, which ironically turned out to be Hougang’s achilles heel last season when they played a similar style of football.

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