SINGAPORE - They were touted as darkhorses for this year's Singapore Premier League (SPL) title but, after the first week of the season, Hougang United find themselves in the same place they were at the end of last term - bottom of the table.
The Cheetahs crashed to a 5-1 defeat by Tampines Rovers at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday (March 3) after playing most of the second half with 10 men, following the 50th-minute sending-off of Justin Hui.
The 21-year-old midfielder picked up two yellow cards in the space of just three minutes and 40 seconds to receive the marching orders from referee G. Letchman.
Tampines had led 1-0 at that point, thanks to a first-half goal by Irwan Shah and, even though the Stags were pegged back by Faris Ramli's 56th-minute penalty, they went on to assert their dominance and rack up a handsome win.
Hougang head coach Clement Teo, who felt there was no "ill intent" in the challenge that earned Hui his second yellow card, was sanguine after the game.
"Yes, the match was frustrating in terms of the result," said the coach.
"But, if you're talking about effort, I can't fault my players. When you are a man short against a quality team like Tampines, you have to face the consequences. I'm not worried about this result."
Revealing he was filling out the substitution card to replace Hui just before the player committed his second offence, Teo added wryly: "We were just a little too slow."
The first half proved to be a cagey affair, but it was Tampines who drew first blood after full-back Irwan Shah charged into the box on the stroke of half-time and fired home.
National winger Faris then earned and converted the penalty that levelled the score, but the goal proved a false dawn for the Cheetahs.
Tampines made full use of the extra man and scored three times in 12 minutes through Ryutaro Megumi (64th min), an own goal by Hougang skipper Zulfahmi Arifin (71st) and substitute Zehrudin Mehmedovic (76th). Jordan Webb added a fifth in injury time.
Stags' first-team coach Gavin Lee admitted that Hui's red card gave his team "greater control of the game", but, while he was happy with the win, he was not completely satisfied with his team's performance.
"We got the points we wanted, but we can't... overlook certain phases of performance which should have been better," said the rookie SPL coach.
While he praised his team's pace on the counter-attack, Lee insisted he would not get carried away by Sunday's result.
"Our challenge is to stay consistent in our thinking and action and, hopefully, we can sum it up at the end of the season and see (a positive outcome)," he said.
In the other match on Sunday, striker Andrei Voronkov scored the winner in the 22nd minute as Brunei DPMM beat Home United 1-0 at the Bishan Stadium.