Hougang United enhanced their Singapore Premier League title credentials yesterday and closed the gap with leaders Brunei DPMM to just two points, with an emphatic 4-2 beating of title holders Albirex Niigata.
The Cheetahs were the big winners on a busy evening of four fixtures, with DPMM and fellow title hopefuls Tampines Rovers dropping points.
DPMM were held to a goal-less draw by the Young Lions in Bandar Seri Begawan. The Bruneian side still sit atop the table with 17 points from seven games.
Tampines dropped points for a fourth straight game, after drawing 1-1 with struggling Warriors FC at the Jurong East Stadium.
Last night's results set up a mouthwatering top-of-the-table clash between DPMM and Hougang in Bandar Seri Begawan on Sunday.
Cheetahs coach Clement Teo was still not completely satisfied despite the handsome win.
"I'm not happy with the goal we conceded, but I cannot take anything away from the boys," he said. "Overall they did well, and played according to instructions."
A first-half brace by forward Faris Ramli, 26, set the tone for Hougang at the Jalan Besar Stadium. He opened the scoring in the ninth minute with a clinical finish, before stealing in behind the Albirex defence and coolly slotting home his second in the 29th minute.
A first league goal for rookie midfielder Nikesh Singh, 20, in the 56th minute then extended Hougang's lead, before Daizo Horikoshi pulled one back for Albirex in the 68th minute. But any hope of a White Swans comeback was extinguished just two minutes later, when Shahfiq Ghani restored Hougang's three-goal advantage after finishing off a counter-attack.
An added-time goal by Yoshikatsu Hiraga was scant consolation for Albirex, who have lost twice in the league this season. The Japanese team went undefeated last term en route to a third straight league championship.
A new league rule has meant that for this term, Albirex have to sign at least four Singaporean players, with at least two of them starting and playing the entire first half.
Faris, who is Hougang's top scorer with six goals this term, said: "We're getting closer to the top of the table but we must take each game as it comes. We have a lot more to improve as a team and as individuals, but we are determined to finish the first round (first eight games) on top, so it will be a great game against DPMM next."
At Jurong East, Warriors picked up their first point of the season after holding Tampines to a 1-1 draw. The Stags led through Shahdan Sulaiman's superb free kick in the 23rd minute, only to be pegged back after Sahil Suhaimi pounced on a goalkeeping mistake to equalise for Warriors, who had lost their first five games of the season.
Tampines, touted as one of the favourites for this year's title, have now drawn three and lost one of their last four games after winning their first three.
At the Bishan Stadium, Home United interim coach Noh Rahman got off to a winning start as his side beat Geylang International 3-0, thanks to goals from Australian striker Oliver Puflett (two) and Adam Swandi.