Tussle for third
Hougang and DPMM both looking for a win, and maybe a coveted AFC Cup spot
HOUGANG UNITED v BRUNEI DPMM FC
(Tomorrow, 7.45pm, StarHub TV Ch 112/205 & 76.25MHz)
Albirex Niigata and Tampines Rovers have left the rest of the Great Eastern-Yeo's S.League in their wake as they sprint towards the finish line of the 2016 season, but the race is not over for those lower down the league ladder.
Indeed, there are four teams - Brunei's DPMM, Hougang United, Home United and Geylang International - in the race for third spot in the nine-team league, with the possibility of an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup spot the prize for the winners of that battle.
With five games left in the season, second-placed Tampines are on 40 points, four adrift of Albirex.
EVERYTHING TO FIGHT FOR: Brunei DPMM's Adi Said and Hougang United's Fumiya Kogure will face off against each other tomorrow. PHOTO: TNP FILE
But only four points separate third-placed DPMM (29) and Geylang (25) in sixth.
Foreign teams in the S.League will not represent Singapore in AFC's regional competition even if they win the league or the RHB Singapore Cup.
And with Albirex Niigata still in the running for the Singapore Cup, and also look set to finish in the top- two positions in the league, finishing third is likely enough for a local team to qualify for the AFC Cup.
Hougang have never flown the Singapore flag in the AFC Cup, and they could take a big step towards making history tomorrow night, when they play host to DPMM at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
And while Cheetahs coach K Balagumaran will relish leading the league's perennial strugglers into their top echelons, he has his eye on the horizon.
"If you told me at the start of the season that we would be in a position to challenge for third spot, I wouldn't have believed you," he told The New Paper.
"But the young boys I've brought into this team have shown character, and I think that is paying off for us.
"Now everyone is talking about the third position because of the possibility of a spot in the AFC Cup next year, but I'm not putting pressure on my boys. If we do get third spot, it's a bonus."
Hougang beat Tampines 2-1 last Wednesday and, while there is a growing belief in the squad, they will have their work cut out for them against DPMM, the 2015 S.League champions, with a bit of a point to prove.
Hougang are only a point behind the Bruneian side, but have a game in hand over their opponents.
"We're the champions, and we don't want to fizzle out at the end of the season and finish fifth or something like that," said DPMM coach Steve Kean.
"We are disappointed that we're not properly in the title race, and it was our early-season form that put us in this position.
"We are in very good form at the moment, and we want to finish strong."
DPMM won only five of their first 13 matches in 2016, seeing their title defence fizzling out even before it started.
"We've analysed where we went wrong, and we know that it was a poor pre-season we had this year that hurt us, and we're making sure this next one is as strong as we've ever had," said Kean.
Instead of heading overseas for a training camp as they have done in previous years, DPMM spent six weeks in Brunei, where Kean asserts that the competition was not as "vicious" as the club would have hoped.
"We're already talking to our imports, thinking about new signings, and planning our pre-season," said the former Blackburn Rovers manager.
But Kean is certain that, even with an eye on the future, there will be no slip-ups in the present, especially against a Hougang side high on confidence.
"Hougang are closing in (on us in third place), and they have been playing well. They beat Tampines Rovers, and they will take massive confidence from that game," said Kean.
"I watched that game, and they played with such energy. They're now an exciting, vibrant team, and I'm sure they want to finish the season strong, too."
Despite that result, Hougang may still be the underdogs in this encounter, but they are looking for a win.
"It's very important to get three points against DPMM if we want that third spot," said Bala.
"DPMM have the advantage of experience over us. They are, after all, last year's S.League champions, but I think the boys will put up a good fight."
EVERYTHING TO FIGHT FOR: Brunei DPMM's Adi Said (above) and Hougang United's Fumiya Kogure will face off against each other tomorrow. TNP FILE PHOTOS
EVERYTHING TO FIGHT FOR: Brunei DPMM's Adi Said and Hougang United's Fumiya Kogure (above) will face off against each other tomorrow. TNP FILE PHOTOS