Eight points adrift at the bottom of the Singapore Premier League (SPL) and having not won a home game in 11 months, Hougang United are looking to give their long-suffering fans something to cheer about when they host Balestier Khalsa at Hougang Stadium on Wednesday night.
There used to be a time when Hougang Stadium can be proclaimed as a fortress for Hougang United. In 2016, they started the season with a six-game unbeaten run at home before faltering to a 2-1 defeat to Albirex Niigata FC (S).
That year, they harboured aspirations of qualifying for the AFC Cup as the second best-placed local team, before a loss of form towards the business end saw that slot going to Home United.
Two years on, things could not have been any more different for the North-east based club as they are staring at the possibility of finishing last for the first time since 2015.
Time is running out for the Cheetahs if they want to pull off the Great Escape. With five games left to play, they are eight points adrift of eighth-placed Geylang International albeit with a game in hand.
Their strong home form is also firmly a thing from the past now, as they have endured a 12-game winless run at their den – a run that stretches back to the latter stages of the 2017 season.
Their last competitive win at Hougang Stadium came almost 11 months ago – a 2-1 win over Young Lions on September 15, 2017.
Despite their troubles this season, the Hougang HOOLS (the unofficial Hougang supporters’ club) have been unwavering in their support for the team – turning up for every game and drumming up support from the stands.
Defender Illyas Lee wants his side to repay their faith as they host sixth-placed Balestier in their third-last home fixture in the league.
“It’s important that we get a win for the HOOLS as they have been with us throughout the whole season,” the 22-year-old told FOX Sports Asia.
“They have been cheering and motivating even when we have not been up to mark. We also have to do it for ourselves to push on for the remaining games of the season.
“It’ll be a very physical battle with Balestier – that’s for sure. They have very good strength and speed. But we have shown that we can overcome that we beat them 1-0 at Toa Payoh Stadium (in June).
“Honestly there’s a good chance for us to win, but we should not leave it up to chance. We need to go into battle with more heart and desire to take the win.”
A tight game is expected in this one, given that the last six meetings yielded no more than two goals on each occasion.
In fact you have to go all the way back to August 2014 for the last time this fixture is decided by more than a goal. Back then, Balestier recovered from a first-half deficit to triumph 4-1 at the Toa Payoh Stadium during Coach Marko Kraljevic’s first season in charge.
TEAM NEWS: Hougang will miss Nazrul Nazari again as the wide man continues to work his way to full fitness after his shoulder operation, while the likes of Stanely Ng, Fabian Kwok and Fazrul Nawaz are also doubtful after their recent injuries.
The good news is that Jordan Vestering is back for selection after completing his three-game ban while fellow full-back Faiz Salleh should also be fit after recovering from injury.
As for Balestier, Raihan Rahman and Sharin Majid are out for the season due to anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries while Croatian midfielder Vedran Mesec is still not available after a long injury lay-off.
Midfielder Huzaifah Aziz also misses out on a reunion with his former club due to a one-game suspension.
Hougang United FC: LLLWL
Balestier Khalsa FC: DDDLW
17/06/18 Balestier 0-1 Hougang – Singapore Premier League
22/04/18 Hougang 1-1 Balestier – Singapore Premier League
02/11/17 Hougang 0-1 Balestier – Singapore Premier League
29/07/17 Balestier 0-0 Hougang – Singapore Premier League
27/04/17 Hougang 1-0 Balestier – Singapore Premier League
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR:
Chang Jo Yoon (Hougang United FC)
With Fazrul unlikely to play a part again, the onus is on Chang to produce the goods upfront. The 30-year-old South Korean has showed glimpses of his ability since coming in during the mid-season transfer window and he will be relishing the opportunity to score his second goal in Cheetahs colours.
Hazzuwan Halim (Balestier Khalsa FC)
After a slow start to the season, Hazzuwan is starting to reprise the form that won him the 2017 Young Player of the Year gong. The 24-year-old will be looking to combine with New Zealander forward Keegan Linderboom to great effect again – just like it was done against Young Lions the last time out.
WHAT ELSE THEY SAID:
Hougang defender Illyas Lee: “It was a tough defeat (0-1 to Tampines Rovers FC) to take. We pushed them right to the end and went very close in the final moments of the game. It was an unfortunate own goal by me and that happens in football.
“There’s still a huge belief in the team to push on and finish the season strong. Our performance shows that we have the ability to get away from the bottom and we can do it.
“Personally it’s been enriching for me (to be the key figure in defence after Adam Mitter’s mid-season departure). Of course I have to step up my game and lead the team from the back. Any young player given this kind of opportunity will definitely learn and grow into a better player in future. I’m happy for the trust given by the club to start most games, missing only two through injury and suspension.”
Balestier forward Keegan Linderboom: “I’m happy to come back and score (in the 1-0 win against Young Lions) after missing so many games. For sure, this goal will give me more confidence going ahead and hopefully I can keep scoring.
“But I’m happier about the team winning because we did not win for seven games before that. We kind of lost our belief in the previous few games, but it came back against Young Lions. For the rest of the season, we just want to finish as high as possible. We also want to do something major for the (Singapore) Cup and I believe we have the team to go all the way.”