By Abhishek Mehrotra
The Protectors must be sick of the sight of SAFFC, who only on Monday ended their defence of the RHB Singapore Cup with a 5-4 aggregate win before inflicting this latest setback.
However, while that game was a hugely entertaining, and largely equal encounter, Home were second-best by a distance on Thursday at the Jalan Besar Stadium, as goals from Shimpei Sakurada, Fazrul Nawaz and Aliff Shafaein put paid to their hopes of leap-frogging Albirex Niigata at the top of the table.
Assistant coach Baek Joon-seok bemoaned the absence of key players through injuries and suspensions, saying: "We had difficulties because we were missing four players - Lionel, Qiu Li and then two suspensions. I don't want to give any excuses, but we didn't have enough players. But I believe the players did their best. They [SAFFC] were better and today [Thursday] was not our day.
"We lost our temper, tempo and concentration and we didn't stay focused."
Lee Lim-saeng's team were without first choice defenders Sofiyan Abdul Hamid and Nor Azli Yusoff due to suspensions, as well as goalkeeper Lionel Lewis due to injury, but the biggest talking points before the match were the absences of winger Qiu Li and forward Shotaro Ihata.
"Qiu Li told us last night [Wednesday] that he felt pain in his knees, so we took him out. We needed someone who could feed the ball from midfield, so we put in Song [Ui-young], but he didn't show the performance that we expected," Baek explained
As for Ihata's continued exclusion, Baek admitted it was largely due to the striker's poor form over the last few matches.
"Despite from the fact that he hadn't scored in eight or nine matches as a striker, we still gave him the chance to play, but even then, and especially in the match against Gombak United [which Home won 2-1] he lost the ball everytime he had it and so he wanted to play in midfield, but he didn't do well there either. That's why we thought it was the right time to bring in Song to play behind Shi Jia Yi and John [Wilkinson]."
With Song putting in an indifferent performance, and Jia Yi stretchered off with an ankle injury on the hour mark, striker Frederic Mendy ploughed a lone furrow up front, and Baek said it was a worrying sign.
"Mendy has been isolated - especially in the last two or three games. He just dribbles himself, and sometimes he can score because he has got the skills, but today [Thursday] he couldn't. Being isolated as a striker is always very difficult."
Home's problems were compounded when Franklin Anzite was sent off for headbutting SAFFC custodian Shahril Jantan late on. He will miss the next two games.
"I think Anzite just lost his temper," said Baek. The SAFFC keeper was clever, and he knew Anzite would lost his temper."
Home looked strangely disjointed on Thursday, but Baek denied there were any problems between the players and the backroom staff.
"As assistant coach, I can say there is no problem between the players and the coaches. We have some arguments, but there's no fighting," he stressed.
The Protectors now face Geylang United, and Lionel Lewis is expected to be back for the game. Jia Yi remains a doubt though and the extent of his injury will be assessed on Friday.
While Thursday brought a new set of problems for Home to grapple with, SAFFC continued their purple patch, and are now within six points of leaders Albirex Niigata.
Assistant coach V. Selvaraj, standing in for head coach Richard Bok who is away in Japan to earn his AFC Professional Coaching Diploma [AFC Pro-Diploma], said things had gone exactly according to plan, with Tatsuro Inui and Shafaein causing havoc out wide.
"If you look at Home United, I can only see their fullbacks as weak links. They have so many quality players at centre-back, in midfield as well as up front. The only place where I could hurt them was from the flanks and it so happened that that is where our strength is," he revealed.
Selvaraj also claimed he was not surprised by the ease with which his charges strolled past Home, saying the effort put in by the players in training had made him very confident.
"In training a coach can feel how prepared the players are. And they were really hungry and showed a lot of passion."
The Warriors have become something of a bogey team for Home this season, having taken four points from two games in addition to knocking them out of the Singapore Cup, and Selvaraj admitted the recent results played a big part in Thursday's game.
"I could see Home were tiring, but we kept going. Confidence also played a big part, because we were tired too. We were on top of them because we wanted it more, were more confident and whatever happened earlier [the two Cup matches] lifted us," he said.
Defence has been a worry for SAFFC this season, and therefore it was no surprise that Selvaraj reserved special praise for his backline for keeping a clean sheet.
"I have to give credit to the backline. One thing I enforced on them was to get the rest of the players involved in the defensive work. So in that sense, we're making the team defence tougher. They made Shukor [Zailan] and Shimpei [Sakurada] work harder, and we drilled this in training. I should also give credit to Zulfadli, his energy was very useful on the flanks.
"We have to keep the players on their toes. I always feel that the team can score goals, but in round 1 [before the summer break], we were conceding a lot. Now they've realised how important it is to defend."
The assistant coach was confident his team would be amongst the title contenders come the end of the season.
"We are six points behind the leaders and I still believe we stand a chance [to win the league]. We will build on from here, work on our weaknesses and wait for Richard Bok to come back."