A spirited comeback from the Garena Young Lions proved to not be enough as they lost 2-1 to Hougang United FC despite a late onslaught from the young team in the Great Eastern-Hyundai S.League at Hougang Stadium on Friday night.
The Cheetahs had raced into a two-goal lead inside the first 16 minutes courtesy of goals from Pablo Rodriguez and Nurhilmi Jasni, before the Young Lions pulled one back through Rusyaidi Salime late in the first half.
Hougang were then reduced to 10 men after Syahiran Miswan’s dismissal in the 73rd minute, but the away side were unable to find the equaliser despite some worthy attempts.
Spanish forward Rodriguez rose the highest in the box to nod home Afiq Noor’s inswinging free kick in the first minute to put the Cheetahs in the driving seat.
The 32-year-old spurned a couple of opportunities thereafter, but Philippe Aw’s side managed to double their advantage in the 16th minute.
Captain Nurhilmi, who was playing his first competitive game since suffering a fractured collarbone in May, slotted beyond the onrushing Zharfan Rohaizad to send the home fans wild.
Young Lions then almost scored on 33 minutes.
Muhaimin Suhaimi went through on goal after exchanging passes with Taufik Suparno, but was denied in a one-on-one opportunity by Khairulhin Khalid.
Nonetheless, they did pull one back four minutes later with right-back Rusyaidi curling home a stunning 25-yard free kick, after Ryan Syaffiq was hacked down by Syahiran.
Young Lions coach Vincent Subramaniam reacted by bringing on Ikhsan Fandi at half time and it almost reaped instant dividends as the forward nodded just wide from a right-wing cross, four minutes after coming on.
Taufik Suparno then forced Khairulhin to turn his well-struck shot wide, before Muhelmy Suhaimi’s speculative drive took a deflection to end on the wrong side of the post.
Hougang could have scored their third goal on 66 minutes when Rodriguez knocked on Afiq’s free kick, but centre-back Delwinder Singh could only volley over just in front of goal.
At the other end, Taufik fired just wide of the right-hand post, before Hougang were reduced to 10 men with 17 minutes to go as Syahiran received a second yellow card for an off-the-ball incident.
The Cheetahs spurned yet another opportunity to seal the game in the 81st minute, with Rodriguez blazing over from eight yards out after superb wing play by Nurhilmi.
Young Lions finished the game strongly and went tantalisingly close to equalising, if not for two saves from Khairulhin within a minute.
The 26-year-old Hougang shot-stopper first tipped Ryan Syaffiq’s shot around the post, before producing a stunning reflex save to deny Ikhsan’s acrobatic volley from the resulting corner and preserve the three points for his side.
Garena Young Lions Head Coach Vincent Subramaniam was disappointed with the loss but acknowledged his charges’ efforts in the match: “We lost the game in the first 20 minutes. We did the drills (on defending free kicks), but still conceded in the first minute.
“We tried to come back (at two goals down) and scored a goal, which was good to see. In the second half, I made some changes and we came out stronger. We were able to win and keep possession longer, created a couple of chances but didn’t finish.
“Overall the boys put in a much better effort than the last two games. Normally by 60 to 70 minutes, player will put their hands up and want to be subbed but that attitude is no longer there. They continued playing and fought till the end.
“The boys are becoming tougher and stronger, that gives us a lot of encouragement going into the Balestier (Khalsa FC) game next Wednesday.”
Garena Young Lions: Zharfan Rohaizad (GK), Rusyaidi Salime, Illyas Lee (C), Amirul Adli, Hafiz Sulaiman (Faizal Roslan 89’), Ammirul Emmran (Jordan Chan 77’), Muhelmy Suhaimi, Muhaimin Suhaimi, Zulqarnaen Suzliman (Ikhsan Fandi 46’), Ryan Syaffiq, Taufik Suparno