SINGAPORE - After twice finishing in third place in the last three seasons, Hougang United coach Clement Teo had at the start of this term called on his charges to deliver domestic silverware.
But six matches in, the Cheetah's campaign has gone pear-shaped and on Tuesday (April 5) night at the Toa Payoh Stadium, it took another turn for the worse.
Hougang fell 2-1 to Balestier Khalsa in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) and now find themselves second from bottom, one spot above developmental side Young Lions, with just five points.
Coupled with last season's poor ending, Hougang have won just once in their last nine matches.
There are mitigating factors though, like a long list of absentees. Key players Pedro Bortoluzo, Hafiz Sujad, Muhaimin Suhaimi, Afiq Noor, Idraki Adnan and Lionel Tan were all unavailable on Tuesday due to injuries and illness.
Balestier, who finished last year seventh in the eight-team SPL, are playing with panache thanks to their Japanese attacking trident. Shuhei Hoshino, Kuraba Kondo and Ryoya Taniguchi all had a hand in the Tigers' goals in Tuesday's victory that pushes the club up to fifth.
Hoshino struck first in the 24th minute with his fourth goal of the season, controlling a fine pass from Taniguchi before drilling home a left-footed shot.
Seven minutes after the interval, it was 2-0 after Kondo's pin-point delivery from a corner was headed in by Serbian defender Ensar Bruncevic.
Hougang thought they had a lifeline in the 72nd minute when forward Sahil Suhaimi scored from Andre Moritz's rebound but it was ruled out for offside. Sahil did get on the scoresheet nine minutes later but it proved scant consolation for Hougang.
In the night's other fixture, Albirex Niigata were held to a 2-2 draw by Geylang International who had a man sent off for a second consecutive game.
For all of the attacking quality Hougang possess with the likes of Lions forwards Amy Recha and Shawal Anuar, defending continues to be an issue.
Defender Kaishu Yamazaki has been used mainly in midfield this season, which makes Hougang the only senior SPL side without a foreign player in their backline.
Whether at set pieces or from open play, they appear devoid of a key figure to marshal their defence.
Their injury list continues to mount as well. Shawal was stretchered off just before half-time after colliding with Balestier defender Ho Wai Loon with captain Fabian Kwok also forced off with a knock in the second-half.