Football: Ambitious Hougang United show title promise, but face tough start in Tampines Rovers

Hougang United at a training session ahead of their season opener against Tampines Rovers.
Hougang United at a training session ahead of their season opener against Tampines Rovers.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - In six months, Hougang United have transformed themselves from wooden spoonists to dark horses for the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title.

The Cheetahs, boosted by several key signings in the off-season, face an immediate test of their title credentials in their opener - five-time champions Tampines Rovers.

To boost a blunt forward line, which saw just 22 goals in 24 games last year, they have reunited Singapore international Faris Ramli and Croatian striker Stipe Plazibat.

The duo plundered 58 goals in all competitions for Home United in 2017 before spending last season abroad at separate clubs.

They have also brought in other Lions like Hafiz Abu Sujad and Afiq Yunos, and re-signed Zulfahmi Arifin after his one season with Thai side Chonburi.

The moves have had some touting Hougang as title contenders.

It is quite a turnaround, considering that Hougang were last in the nine-team SPL last year and have never finished in the top half of the league.

Their best results were finishing runners-up in the League Cup in 2007 and 2011.

Head coach Clement Teo is confident of ending the barren run, saying: "Looking at the players we have, we know we can win silverware. But we are also aware that no games have been played yet.

"On paper, yes, we look fantastic and I have no doubt about my players' capabilities. What we need to do now is to get them to work together, on and off the field."

The club have failed to deliver on pre-season hype before.

In 2016, they signed the league's reigning Player of the Year Fumiya Kogure, only to end up sixth out of nine teams. A year later, they roped in Philippe Aw, who built a stylish Home United team over two seasons and brought with him two key men, Zulfahmi and Azhar Sairudin. Again, the Cheetahs finished sixth.

While Teo is bullish this year will be different, he expects a difficult start against Tampines, and terms his team firm underdogs for the tie.

Tampines, seen by some as favourites for the SPL crown, thrashed defending champions Albirex Niigata 4-0 in a friendly two weeks ago, and then won 3-1 at Myanmar league and Cup champions Yangon United in the AFC Cup last Tuesday.

Tampines' strongest XI are almost unchanged from last season. Hougang midfielder Fabian Kwok says that while this consistency is beneficial, he believes that Hougang are better equipped against strong teams this term.

"Last year, we had good players and were competitive in many games," said the 29-year-old, who has been with Hougang since 2017.

"But we lacked the experience, and often lost by one goal to the top teams. This year, we've signed players who are established and they bring that experience we need."

Plazibat, who scored 25 league goals in 22 games for Home in 2017, stressed that the best chance of victory today is through their strength as a unit.

"We are aware of our capabilities (as players) but individual players don't guarantee you anything, you need a team," said the 29-year-old.

"We are very serious about wanting to start the season on a high, because it will be very difficult later on if we don't collect points early.

"My target this season is to win (silverware) with the team. If I score many goals along the way, that's a bonus."