Football: Continuity, consistency key for SPL challengers Hougang and Tampines

Nazrul Nazari (centre) training with Hougang United on Feb 21, 2022. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Once synonymous with mid-season managerial changes and end-of-season contract disputes, Hougang United are thriving in a period of stability at the club.

Clement Teo, who took over in June 2018, is now the Singapore Premier League's longest-serving coach across one spell and has retained 90 per cent of his local roster from last season.

He will again rely on several stalwarts like skipper Fabian Kwok plus vice-captains Faiz Salleh and Nazrul Nazari. The trio have been at Hougang for more than five years, each clocking over 100 appearances.

Lions right-back Nazrul, 31, felt that having a core of familiar faces among the backroom staff and players helps with the chemistry on the pitch.

He said: "I've known coach Clement and the late (former assistant coach) Salim Moin since I was a teenager playing in the (now defunct) National Football Academy. We understand and trust one another, and it is the same with the other players who have come in.

"It helps that we're good friends too. Over the years, we've built a strong team with those from my generation like Hafiz Sujad, Zulfahmi Arifin, Shawal Anuar, Shahfiq Ghani and Sahil Suhaimi really giving the club a boost."

The Cheetahs have flourished thanks to this continuity. They achieved their best league finish of third in 2019 and 2021 and qualified for the AFC Cup both times.

Last season, Hougang held their own in big games. They split their three encounters (win, lose and draw) with eventual champions Lion City Sailors and swept five-time champions Tampines Rovers.

They had a league-high 15 different scorers last term and Teo has added more firepower with Brazilian attackers Andre Moritz and Pedro Bortoluzo as well as Croatian midfielder Kristijan Krajcek.

Teo said: "Pedro and Andre have adapted well while we have had to ask Kiki (Krajcek) to stop running during the Yo-yo test. The players are jokingly asking him where he buys his batteries from.

"You will see a more structured and organised Hougang. I have 25 potential starters whom I can interchange with ease and will give the licence to attack and shoot.

"We want a higher SPL finish than last season, qualify for the next round of the AFC Cup, and hopefully win our first trophy in the Singapore Cup."

For Tampines, whose last major trophy was the 2019 Singapore Cup, last year was a sobering one. After finishing runners-up in the SPL in 2019 and 2020, they fell to fourth while conceding 51 goals, one more than bottom side Young Lions.

Their Asian Champions League debut ended with six straight defeats and 27 goals conceded.

This year, the Stags have rejuvenated their backline, replacing veterans Daniel Bennett, Madhu Mohana (both released) and Baihakki Khaizan (retired) with Shuya Yamashita from Albirex Niigata plus Young Lions duo Danish Irfan and Irfan Najeeb.

Attackers Boris Kopitovic, Kyoga Nakamura and Zehrudin Mehmedovic are retained and the Stags have also awarded five-year contracts to players like Nakamura as well as Joel Chew and Shah Shahiran, a pair of 22-year-old midfielders.

Tampines Rovers' players training at Our Tampines Hub on Feb 23, 2022. PHOTO: TAMPINES ROVERS FOOTBALL CLUB/FACEBOOK

Lee said: "This is our longer-term plan which speaks of the club's ambitions as we add and keep players to help us in our process.

"We want to execute clear ideas of possession-based attacking football, enjoy playing, dominate and win games. A by-product of this is a clear identity on and off the pitch, and if we get more things right than wrong, we will win silverware."

With the SPL's Under-23 quota reduced from three starters to one, younger players may find their opportunities limited but Tampines winger Marc Ryan Tan, 20, welcomed the challenge.

He notched three goals and two assists in 13 league appearances last year. He said: "It's a more open fight for a starting position and that's how it should be. My target is to play as many games as possible and get at least five goals and five assists.

"I have improved tremendously under coach Gavin... and I'm glad Boris, Kyoga and Zehko (Mehmedovic) have stayed on because they are a big influence with their experience and quality."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.