Football: Hougang are dark horses, but don’t discount Tampines or Tanjong Pagar

Hougang United's new signing Gabriel Quak (centre) will be expected to boost their attack in the Singapore Premier League this season. ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

SINGAPORE – Not only will Hougang United have a new home in 2023 at Jalan Besar Stadium, but they will also be led by a new coach in Firdaus Kassim, who took over from Clement Teo towards the end of last season.

Firdaus, Hougang’s assistant coach for three years, helped the Cheetahs win their maiden major trophy, the 2022 Singapore Cup, but enters the new Singapore Premier League season without three key imports after the departures of Kaishu Yamazaki, Andre Moritz and Pedro Bortoluzo.

At least he has much-needed reinforcements at the back with the signings of centre-backs Naoki Kuriyama, 32, and Kazuma Takayama, 26, from the J3 League after Hougang conceded a staggering 71 goals in 28 league matches last term when they finished fifth.

Firdaus, 35, said: “We did a lot of research on the progress of Albirex (Niigata) players and realised the majority of them play in the fourth or fifth tier when they return to Japan. We wanted to have an upgrade on that quality. So we searched high and low within the top three divisions, and eventually we found Kazuma and Naoki.”

The Cheetahs have also added Singapore internationals Gabriel Quak and Shahdan Sulaiman, both prised from rivals Lion City Sailors, but will miss the latter for months after he fractured his foot during a friendly.

However, newly appointed captain Zulfahmi Arifin believes the squad has sufficient depth. The midfielder said: “I had a great 20 minutes on the pitch with Shahdan in a friendly match and he will be a great loss. But every player in the team right now has very good qualities, so losing Shahdan should not be a problem.”

While Firdaus prefers a possession-based style – he cites Brighton & Hove Albion manager Roberto de Zerbi as his inspiration – he is prepared to be “more flexible”. He said: “We need to be able to go long to get players in behind if we can. But if our opposition protects those spaces, then we have to be more patient in possession to draw out the press.

“We are not just keeping possession for the sake of it. Our goal is to build up to attack the last line as much as possible. Last Sunday (they lost 3-0 to Albirex in the Community Shield), the first half was a good indication of what we can do, but we need to sustain it over 90 minutes.”

While Hougang experiment with new faces, expectations are different at Tampines Rovers. This is Gavin Lee’s fourth season in charge and, while the Stags finished third in 2022, he is aware they cannot go backwards.

He said: “Last season we had a strong finish, we want to replicate that. We want to play to our strengths this season. Come match day, whoever are the in-form players will play and we will try to find the best formation for them.”

Tampines have strengthened their defence with Milos Zlatkovic – a left-footed Serbian centre-back who can also deputise as a wing-back. They have also boosted their attack, signing Saifullah Akbar and Faris Ramli from the Sailors and Glenn Kweh from Young Lions.

Forward Kweh, 22, who made his Lions debut in 2022, said: “I joined because I was convinced by coach Gavin’s philosophy. I’m excited to be part of a team that plays attacking football and all of us believe that we can challenge for the title.”

Tanjong Pagar United are another club embracing continuity, with Hasrin Jailani entering his third full season as coach. The Jaguars were winless and rock bottom in 2020 but have improved under him, finishing fifth in 2021. Hasrin favours a more pragmatic, transition-based style backed by defensive resilience and sees no reason to alter this identity.

He said: “Our counter-attacking style should be a mainstay. We will not change our strength and we should be even tighter in defence. We have speed this season with wing-backs Naqiuddin (Eunos) and Tajeli (Salamat), so we will try to use that.”

The club have lost first-choice goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad and top scorer Reo Nishiguchi, who netted 26 league goals, but brought in Brazilian centre-back Pedro Dias and Croatian striker Marin Mudrazija.

Hasrin said: “Last season, we played according to Reo‘s strength. But Marin and Reo are different players. We expect everyone to contribute. Hopefully the goals will be more spread out.“

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