SINGAPORE - Hougang United striker Tomoyuki Doi ended his three-match goal-less run with a first-half hat-trick to lead the Cheetahs to a 7-3 win over Tampines Rovers in the Singapore Premier League on Saturday (Sept 11).
The 23-year-old Japanese, who leads the SPL's scoring chart with 19 goals in 18 games, said: "I scored 13 goals in the first half of the season but not so many recently, which was a bit frustrating because I want to contribute as much as I can.
"I still believe in my abilities and have tried to be patient and stick with my preparation routine and extra shooting practice after training. And today, the goals flowed again."
The convincing win at the Hougang Stadium meant the hosts have completed a historic season sweep over the Stags. With Tampines in freefall after recording just one point in 12 SPL and AFC Champions League games, Hougang also look set to finish above their illustrious rivals for the first time if Tampines fail to win their four remaining matches.
With three games to play, Hougang are third with 33 points, 11 ahead of Tampines and two behind Lion City Sailors, who have two games in hand. Japanese side Albirex Niigata lead with 43 points after beating Geylang International 5-0 at the Jurong East Stadium.
Although it is mathematically impossible for the Cheetahs to win the league, they still harbour ambitions of overtaking the Sailors to become the top local side and qualify for next season's AFC Champions League.
Hougang coach Clement Teo said: "Nothing is impossible. We want to continue pushing and finish as high as we can. We cannot control our rivals, but we can control our own game.
"We can still improve. There were phases where we were slack and were bailed out by our goalkeeper (Izwan Mahbud). In terms of possession, we were not there, we were waiting for the referee's whistle for the goals we conceded.
"But we have a bunch of players who have worked hard and learnt from the likes of Doi. At the start, they would just sit and watch as he did extra shooting practice. But now, everyone finds something extra to work on."
The buy-in from the Hougang players was perhaps best exemplified with the opening goal when they pressed high in the fourth minute, and centre-back Fabian Kwok pounced on a poor clearance to net from 30 metres and become their 15th different scorer this season.
Zehrudin Mehmedovic equalised eight minutes later, but Doi's 15-minute hat-trick gave his team breathing space.
Tampines, who were without their injured goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari as Zulfairuuz Rudy deputised, then did well to reduce the arrears to 4-3 with Boris Kopitovic's brace.
But "unacceptable" defending allowed Hougang to record this season's highest-scoring match with goals from Lionel Tan, Gilberto Fortunato and Hafiz Abu Sujad.
Dejected Stags coach Gavin Lee did not use his thin squad as an excuse, but said: "We conceded far too easily and we have four more games to find solutions."
In stark contrast to Tampines' lack of cover, Hougang's wealth of options was evident as they had three capped players - Shahfiq Ghani, Nazrul Nazari and Khairul Nizam - and Afiq Noor, who was in the latest Lions squad, on the bench.
They could even afford to leave Anders Aplin and Shahril Ishak - two more players with national team experience - out of the match-day squad, and it is not a stretch to say their second team would have given Tampines a run for their money.
With the Cheetahs set to retain 80 per cent of their roster next season, and the SPL looking to reduce the Under-23 quota, such depth will only increase training quality and elevate the unfashionable side to become the main contenders to moneybags Lion City Sailors and perennial challengers Albirex for the SPL title.