Free-scoring Stipe Plazibat insists AFC Cup defeat has only reinforced Hougang United belief

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

Although Hougang United were on the receiving end of a 3-2 defeat to Ho Chi Minh City, star striker Stipe Plazibat insists the result has only given them confidence that they can make waves in AFC Cup 2020.

Making their continental debut this year, the Cheetahs opened their AFC Cup 2020 Group F campaign with a 3-1 win over Lao Toyota a fortnight ago but came up against a far tougher test at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Tuesday.

A blistering start by Ho Chi Minh saw them race to a 3-0 lead inside the opening hour, but the hosts produced a stirring fightback as Plazibat netted in the 77th and 79th minutes to set up a grandstand finish although their efforts were ultimately in vain.

Highlights – Hougang United vs Ho Chi Minh City

Still, after their slow start to the contest, Hougang had their opponents hanging on towards the end of the contest and Plazibat believes this should give them confidence that they can match it with the very best in the competition.

“I think we were initially a bit impressed by our opponents and their strengths,” the Croat told FOX Sports Asia. “They came with a good mindset and played very good football.

“But, when we didn’t have any more pressure on us – 3-0 down with nothing to lose anymore – then we started playing good football, and we showed everyone we can play in this competition against a strong team.

Plazibat’s fourth goal of the campaign gave Hougang a late lifeline.

“The good thing in us coming back from two goals is now the team also gets the confidence that we can play at this kind of level, but we need to continue from that we did from the 60th minute onwards and not before that.

“We know now we don’t have to show our opponents too much respect.”

“Hopefully, we can pick up the positives from this game and bring those to the upcoming games and hopefully take some points against Yangon United [on March 10].”

After two matches, Group F is evenly poised with Ho Chi Minh and Yangon sharing the lead on four points and Hougang just one behind, while Lao Toyota are rooted to the bottom after suffering back-to-back defeats.

Plazibat added: “We have four more games to play – two of which are at home – so we still have 12 points to aim for.

“We are definitely not out of the competition after just two games. We have three points, Ho Chi Minh and Yangon have four… everything is close.”

The Split native seems to have a real affinity with the AFC Cup having previously netted ten goals (including two in the qualifiers) for Home United in 2017, to go with the four from two matches he already has in 2020.

Still, he was quick to play down his heroics that almost proved enough to salvage a late draw for the Cheetahs, instead choosing to pay tribute to the Hougang HOOLs, the club’s passionate supporters.

“When you play against stronger opponents in bigger competitions with larger crowds, you are more motivated as a player,” Plazibat explained. “That’s the message for all Singaporeans who complain about Singapore football as well.

“It’s easy to complain sitting in front of a keyboard or the TV but they should just come to the stadium and try to support a team.

“Because, when you support us like our HOOLs did today [Tuesday], it gives you a little morale boost. And, at the end, when you need this extra 10 per cent towards the end of the game, the supporters are there to provide it.

“When you come to a game like today’s – you see five goals and plenty of drama – it’s nice, so you cannot say there’s no quality and come with a negative mindset.”

Before their next AFC Cup tie away to Yangon, Hougang do have their Singapore Premier League season opener to play this Sunday as they take on Young Lions at the Jurong West Stadium.