Ho Chi Minh City were given a real scare at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday but ultimately prevailed 3-2 over Hougang United to pick up their first win of AFC Cup 2020.
A Nguyen Cong Phuong strike and Amido Balde’s double put the visitors firmly in control of proceedings at the Jalan Besar Stadium, but Stipe Plazibat netted twice in the final 13 minutes to set up a grandstand finish although Hougang were ultimately unable to find the equaliser.
The result means Ho Chi Minh are now joint top of Group F on four points along with Yangon United, who were also victorious on Tuesday as they beat Lao Toyota 3-2.
Highlights – Hougang United vs Ho Chi Minh City
Having claimed a 3-1 win over Lao Toyota a fortnight ago on their tournament debut, Hougang would have entered the match confident in their prospects, but it was the Vietnamese outfit who got off to a brighter start.
Eight minutes in, Tran Phi Son broke free down the right and his clever cutback found Cong Phuong, who fired away a powerful shot that was thwarted by an excellent save from Khairulhin Khalid.
But just two minutes later, there was nothing Khairulhin could do to prevent his side from falling behind as the same combination worked wonders for Ho Chi Minh; Phi Son breaking free down the right and floating in a cross that Cong Phuong met with a firm volley into the back of the net.
Cong Phuong almost turned provider in the 45th minute when he received possession just outside the box and threaded a pass through to Balde, but Hougang right-back Nazrul Nazari was alert to the danger and weighed in with a crucial block just as the Guinea-Bissau international fired away a shot from close range.
Nonetheless, the visitors duly doubled their lead seconds later to take a 2-0 lead into halftime as Phi Son hung up a looping cross in the area that paved the way for Balde to tower over his opponent and deftly head past a stranded Khairulhin.
Ho Chi Minh continued to threaten after the break and should have added a third in the 53rd minute as Cong Phuong waltzed his way through the opposition defence to set up the opening.
Thrice, the Vietnamese side fired away efforts from point-blank range that seemed destined to find the net, only to be denied by some desperate blocking by Nazrul and Anders Aplin.
Hougang also had Khairulhin to thank for keeping them in the contest and he made another decent stop two minutes later, diving at full stretch to push wide a speculative 20-yard effort from Ngo Hoang Thinh.
But Ho Chi Minh were not to be denied a minute before the hour mark when Cong Phuong again left the opponents’ defence in his wake.
Although his deflected shot came back off the post, Phi Son kept the attack alive and send in a cross to the back post where Balde was on hand to squeeze a header past a sea of players on the goal-line.
At this stage, Ho Chi Minh were cruising but Hougang were given a lifeline in the 75th minute when they won a penalty, after Shawal Anuar pressured opposition goalkeeper Bui Tien Dung into losing possession to him and then fouling him in the box.
Plazibat stepped up to the spot and made no mistake in sending Tien Dung the wrong way and, with 11 minutes remaining, the Croat struck again.
A searching pass by M. Anumanthan found Shawal down the left and he played an inch-perfect ball into area for Plazibat to tuck home for his fourth goal in two AFC Cup 2020 matches.
Ultimately though, it proved to be too little too late for a fast-finishing Cheetahs outfit as the visitors held on to take three points back to Vietnam.
HOUGANG UNITED: Khairulhin Khalid, Nazrul Nazari, Anders Aplin, Zac Anderson, Hafiz Abu Sujad, Fabian Kwok, Charlie Machell (M. Anumanthan 66’), Afiq Noor, Shawal Anuar, Sahil Suhaimi (Shahfiq Ghani 70’), Stipe Plazibat.
HO CHI MINH CITY: Bui Tien Dung, Le Van Son (Ngo Tung Quoc 83’), Pape Diakite, Nguyen Huu Tuan, Nguyen Cong Thanh, Tran Phi Son (Nguyen Xuan Nam 77’), Ngo Hoang Thinh, Sam Ngoc Duc (Vu Anh Tuan 86’), Pham Cong Hien, Amido Balde, Nguyen Cong Phuong.