Shahfiq Ghani struck a free-kick deep into stoppage time to help Hougang United achieve an unlikely 2-2 draw against champions Albirex Niigata FC (S) at Jurong East Stadium on Sunday evening.
It looked like Albirex was on the way to yet another victory after second-half goals from Adam Swandi and Shun Kumagai overturned Hougang’s first-half lead courtesy of Stanely Ng’s penalty.
However, Hougang were determined not to be mere spectators to the White Swans’ Singapore Premier League (SPL) title party as Shahfiq struck a stoppage-time equaliser to stem their winning run at Jurong East at 38 matches.
The last time Albirex failed to win at home was back in November 2015 in a 1-0 loss to Tampines Rovers.
Hougang got off to the best possible start by scoring after just 14 minutes in. With Nazrul Nazari tripped by Kumagai in the area, Ng stepped up to send Yohsuke Nozawa the wrong way from the spot to give the visitors a dream lead.
That goal stung Kazuaki Yoshinaga’s men into action, as they dominated the rest of the half but were thwarted by an alert Ridhuan Barudin in the Hougang goal.
Pulling off a stunning point-blank save to deny Shuhei Hoshino on 16 minutes, the 31-year-old then tipped Taku Morinaga’s close-range shot onto the post on 28 minutes before smothering Riku Moriyasu’s left-footed drive four minutes later.
Hougang were content to hit on the break and could have doubled the lead eight minutes before the break, but Nazrul lost his composure with just Nozawa to beat as Hiroyoshi Kamata got back in time to clear.
Ridhuan continued to keep Albirex at bay after the break, as he superbly denied Hoshino in a one-on-one opportunity and Kamata’s subsequent follow-up on 59 minutes.
The Cheetahs’ resistance was finally broken three minutes later, with Adam producing an opportunistic first-time shot with his less favoured left foot that flew past a rooted Ridhuan for the equaliser after Hoshino had created the initial chaos in the box.
Hougang had chances to retake the lead thereafter, but Chang Jo-yoon and Fabian Kwok were unable to make them count.
As the clock began ticking down, Albirex began to find more inroads to a tiring Hougang defence and they would grab a second goal on 86 minutes.
Kamata’s right-wing cross into the area was missed by Hougang centre-back Illyas Lee, but not Kumagai, who steadied himself well in unfamiliar territory before slotting past Ridhuan for what looked like the winner.
Hougang refused to cower and they would get their just rewards with an memorable equaliser two minutes into injury time.
With substitute Antoine Viterale tripped by Kumagai just outside the area, Shahfiq stepped up to deliver a stunning dead ball from 20 yards out past a stranded Nozawa to send the visiting Hougang HOOLS into delirium.
That goal earned the Cheetahs an unlikely point and they will take heart from being the first team to stop Albirex from winning on their home turf in almost three years, as they conclude the season with a home game against Geylang International FC next Saturday.
Meanwhile Albirex will now turn their attentions to the Singapore Cup semi-finals as they host Home United FC in the first leg at the same venue on Wednesday.
Albirex Niigata FC (S) Head Coach Kazuaki Yoshinaga: “We knew that this will be a difficult game for us… We conceded two goals from set-plays and could have lost the game. For the next four games (including Singapore Cup), we have to reflect and learn from our mistakes. This is definitely not one of our better displays this season.
“It wasn’t a good week for us – some players were not well and not fully fit. It’s amazing that we could assemble 11 players to play. For Adam, I’m happy to see him score – it’s important for him to score more goals and hopefully he works on this more.
“For the Singapore Cup, it will be a different preposition against Home with the way they play. We have not looked back on what we achieved this season because there’s still one more game and the Singapore Cup to go – we will only look back after the season has concluded.”
Hougang United FC Caretaker Head Coach Clement Teo: “We knew there’s going to be a party, so we told the players to come here and enjoy it. They were enjoying themselves and could have gotten more from the game. So even if we had lost, I would have been happy with their brave display.
“Over the season, they’ve been trying hard – sometimes too hard. They just need to believe in themselves more and things will eventually work. For Shahfiq, everyone knows he’s a talented player. In a way, we forced him to play in this game even though he’s only 60 percent. We knew that with his talent, he can be a threat even at 60 percent. He need to play games and everyone was so happy with him for that goal.
“There’s still one game to go and the season is only over after next Saturday at 7.30pm.”
Albirex Niigata FC (S): Yohsuke Nozawa (GK), Riku Moriyasu, Shuhei Sasahara, Shun Kumagai, Kenya Takahashi (Kodai Sumikawa 80’), Hiroyoshi Kamata, Daiki Asaoka, Wataru Murofushi (C), Adam Swandi, Taku Morinaga (Ryujiro Yamanaka 64’), Shuhei Hoshino (Kazuki Sumiishi 89’)
Hougang United FC: Ridhuan Barudin (GK), Muhaimin Suhaimi, Illyas Lee, Faiz Salleh, Jordan Vestering, Nazrul Nazari (Fareez Farhan 68’), Fabian Kwok (C), Shahfiq Ghani, Nurhilmi Jasni (C), Stanely Ng (Antoine Viterale 81’), Chang Jo-yoon (Fazrul Nawaz 88’)