SINGAPORE PREMIER LEAGUE
Hougang United 1
Albirex Niigata 1
It almost seemed as though time stood still at the Jalan Besar Stadium last night.
Deep into injury time, Hougang United striker Iqbal Hussain launched all 1.86m of himself to get on the end of teammate Shahfiq Ghani's cross. He strained his neck, got his head to the ball, and glanced it towards goal.
Stranded Albirex Niigata goalkeeper Kengo Fukudome was helpless as he watched the ball float over his head. Straight onto the crossbar, and then safely out. The final whistle came two seconds later.
The Singapore Premier League (SPL) title race has threatened to go down to the wire this season and last night's 1-1 draw showed how fine the margin is.
The draw took Hougang to the summit, but they are just one point ahead of Brunei DPMM, who have two games in hand.
Tampines Rovers, third with a game in hand over Hougang, are three points behind and also in the running.
Iqbal's miss was one of several gilt-edged chances Hougang spurned, but coach Clement Teo insisted he was proud of his charges.
"These boys have created history for Hougang as this is the first time the club are top of the league, so let's not deny them credit," said Teo. "They've done very well all season and I'm happy with what they have shown again tonight."
Hougang had the first big chance of the game in the 17th minute, but Albirex defender Sota Sugiyama pulled off a last-ditch block tackle in the box to deny Stipe Plazibat after the Croat had led a three-on-two counter-attack.
Three minutes later, Sugiyama popped up at the opposite end to fire the White Swans ahead from the edge of the box.
Undeterred, Hougang kept plugging away, and in the 27th minute, 16-year-old winger Farhan Zulkifli charged down half the pitch with the ball only to fire straight at Fukudome.
The Cheetahs got their equaliser in the 40th minute, when Faris Ramli cut inside two defenders and clinically finished for his 13th goal of the season.
The second half was largely devoid of clear-cut chances until substitute Iqbal's agonising miss late on.
Said Teo: "Of course, some of the players are disappointed with not taking the three points. But they fought together till the end. And I know they will bounce back, like they have many times this season."
Despite the setback, Hougang are set for their best finish in the league, with just three games left.
In all their previous incarnations - from Marine Castle (1998-2001) to Sengkang Punggol (2006-2010) - the team's best league finish were the sixth places in 2016 and 2017. The Cheetahs were ninth last term.
For defending champions Albirex, meanwhile, hopes of retaining their title are slim.
Winless for the fifth game in a row, they are seven points adrift of Hougang in fourth, but with two games in hand.
Coach Keiji Shigetomi insisted: "We are still aiming for the title but we are looking at one game at a time. Now, we concentrate on our next game (against Warriors FC on Saturday)."
The SPL will conclude on Sept 29, and could culminate in a winner-take-all encounter, with Hougang scheduled to play DPMM in Bandar Seri Begawan.
Sazali Abdul Aziz