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Singapore Cup 2023 - It’s now or never

Submitted by: Clovis Yio | 7th December 2023

Hougang United winning the 2022 Singapore Cup shown on the SPL.SG website

There are many underdog stories in football all over the world. We've seen the likes of Birmingham and Wigan Athletic win domestic cups in England and qualifying for Europe despite relegation. Seeing New Caledonian teams dominate in the Oceania Champions League over the likes of the Kiwis. Here in Singapore, we write our own story.

Hougang were never a strong team to begin with. We were big in support but never in history. We supplied a good number of players to the national team but we were never regarded as a big club. In fact, our rise to glory only began in 2019 when we placed 3rd and qualified for our first Asian competition. This followed up with a disappointing 6th place finished. Since then, we've constantly fluctuated in form yet we still had the AFC Cup in our reach.

Last season saw us win our first piece of silverware in the Singapore Cup. This was the same season we lost 7-1 to Tampines. 6-1 to Balestier. 9-4 to Lion City Sailors, and 5-0 to Albirex. It was a pretty conflicting campaign and we even started our Cup campaign with a 3-1 loss to Tanjong Pagar. This year, we've gone through several humiliating defeats and also lost our first Cup game to Tanjong Pagar.

A broken clock is right twice a day.

Tactical setup

Photo Credits: Hougang United Instagram

Marko stuck to what has been a flawless lineup recently. As usual, a 5-2-3 that sat deep with a transition into a 4-2-2-2 as we countered on the attack. From the line-up graphic, we can make out that despite the same formation and strategy, Marko wanted to play a more conservative game with Nazrul operating more as a wing-back rather than as a winger which we were all used to by now.

This in comparison to Brunei's 4-3-1-2, which had options to transition into a 4-3-3, really helped in nullifying the little attacking threat they had by giving them lesser options to work with (especially with the recent release of Andrey Varankov).

We sat in with a defensive five with extra support from Irwan AND Ajay whilst Sahil, Hazzuwan, and Maksi sat up top. You can see how conservative we actually set up because at times we were playing with not only five defenders but sometimes even six and seven. This made it extremely hard for Brunei to poke in and in fact, the only times they really had a sniff on goal was after set piece situations.

target man

One thing we missed out for half the season was a desperate need of a target man. We started the season with no natural strikers and often rotated between Amy, Sahil, and Hazzuwan before we made a panic signing in Fairoz Hasan who only managed 120 minutes, an equivalent of a full game and 30 minutes. We also desperately missed a natural finisher so when the likes of Maksimovic came in, it was natural for goals to start pouring in.

Maksimovic is stacked with pace, physicality, and a towering presence in the box but the most notable aspect of his game is his pace. He loves hugging the backline and making that crucial run the moment the ball is played. His immense pace makes it hard for 'keepers to adjudge for themselves whether they want to sweep and his speed leaves little to no room for thought for defenders, thus leading to mistakes. In fact, Maksimovic even scored a goal just like this but was unfortunately and unfairly ruled out by the referee.

VAR perspective on Maksimovic's 'offside' goal from SPL's Livestream

This is exactly the same way he scored against the Sailors in the group stage. A brilliant curled ball from the right hand side by Nazrul into Maksimovic's path with a tap in between the 'keeper's legs. And this doesn't happen just so easily as well. Maksimovic is brilliant at exploiting space and making runs away from his defender. It's the exact same situation for his second goal of the night when he just managed to squirm away from Brunei's defenders during a corner.

Moments before Maksimovic's goal from SPL's Livestream

I'm also a goalkeeper and if I was in Naumovski's position, I'd be asking why there were only four defenders in my box and three of them were on the same man. Can't really blame them though because Maksimovic's sleek movements in the box makes him extremely hard to contain.

Speaking of pace,

Mr hougang

We've seen the best of our captain's versatility this season. Being able to play as a right-back, right-wing-back, and a right-winger all in one. It has been a season of resurgence as after being dropped from the national team, his new role in the club has seen him back into the squad for the World Cup qualifiers. Rather than focusing on a purely defensive role, Naz has been tasked to play more attacking football and his Singapore Cup performances have shown why.

In my previous blog, I talk about how Nazrul was able to help soften the blow of losing Shawal to LCS and in this entire Cup campaign, he has done what Shawal was able to do. His vision and defensive transitions have been sublime and it's as if taking the role as permanent captain flickered something in Naz as his performances have been incredible lately. He's been voted Man of the Match by our fanbase twice this campaign. His influence will desperately be needed on Satuday.

It's unknown whether Marko will be playing aggressively or conservatively against a much eager Sailors than the one we saw in the group stage as this time, the Sailors will be putting 100% focus on winning the cup but regardless of how he plays, Nazrul will most likely be tasked to be the gear of the team with his immense work rate and if there's anyone I want to see lift the cup in front of a packed Jalan Besar, it has to be Naz.

Dissecting the sailors

The Sailors have been pretty laxed throughout the tournament up until their elimination from the Champions League. Their absolute dominance against Tampines last night is a prime example. To begin simply, LCS set out in a simple 4-3-3 attacking formation that would transition to a 4-2-3-1 in defence. This saw Hariss and Anu who are very defensive minded to drop in while Lestienne and Nathan sit tight with Lopes whilst Zivkovic sits up top.

What this essentially means is LCS will probably play in a tactical set up very similar to ours just with more physicality and defensive stability. Anu is a bulldozer which means he'd use his physical prowess to knock our players off the ball. This might be a disadvantage in hindsight but with a nifty player like Ajay who's much lankier in comparison, winning a foul regardless of how strong a push is could see us take an advantage in the heart of midfield.

However, that isn't to say we can just sloppily give the ball away. Zivkovic sitting up top during the defensive transition just means that just like Maksimovic, he's hugging the backline waiting for the opportunity to pounce.

Zivkovic's run initiating a counter attack from SPL's Livestream

This is something we have to take note of because we've had issues of a lapse in concentration too many times this season. Allowing a player like Zivkovic to make runs in behind will destroy any defensive set up we have. We need to be strict in defending and not stray off at the slightest of loose touches. This is where we desperately need a proper shape in defence and for our midfield to settle down to support because what I'm going to point out next is going to be the hardest task of them all.

Foreign trio

Lestienne, Lopes, and Zivkovic have been pulling the strings for LCS ever since the latter came into the scene. You know how in PE football, you'd only pass around with your friends? This is the best way I can describe their chemistry. With European experience in their arsenal, their one touch football and connection is nearly unstoppable.

Lopes, Zivkovic, and Lestienne haunting Tampines' box from SPL's Livestream

What the actual f[]k is this.

They love to toy around in the box because they're super composed and this resulted from another run in behind by Zivkovic. One thing about the Tampines defenders is they immediately shift their focus to whoever has their ball in possession and never focused on who's making the run.

Glenn and Joel prioritising Lopes from SPL's Livestream

This allows Zivkovic to freely run into space and perform whatever one-two movements he wants in the box. In the BOX. This is what we desperately cannot afford if we want to defend our title because the moment those three get into the box, it might be game over for us. What about the other foreigner?

When we played LCS in the group stage, we had a decent number of chances on them. But this might change with the return of Bailey Wright. The World Cup experienced player makes a return to the set up and might cause us issues both defensively and offensively. Though there are some bright spots for us.

Wright isn't fast. He's quite tanky actually which means if we play the right pass, Maksimovic can get the better of him. Let's not forget that Lionel isn't the quickest either. Having two central defenders with a lack of pace is exactly what makes Maksimovic flourish with his runs in behind.

Wright also struggles to deal with physical strikers. Tampines got an equalizer in the first leg because Wright couldn't contain Kopitovic's strength. This could be the deal breaker as Maksimovic has a similar physique and play style to him. Something we can exploit out of the Australian.

Wright losing out to Kopitovic from SPL's Livestream

shawal anuar

There's no telling whether Shawal would start but he will definitely come out to hurt us (before giving us the most sincerest apologies). He's gotten five goals in this campaign as as substitute with one coming against us. He might start and give us a hard time to get things running, or he might come on as a substitute and terrorise our tired defence. Regardless, we know him inside out and we need to contain him as his touch, flair, and dribbling gives LCS another way of attack.

In the event where Shawal is benched for Nathan Mao in the first half, we might have to play conservatively as we don't want to have fatigue kicking in the moment Shawal decides to play our defence like training cones. His vertical is also an issue as we don't want him to suddenly pop up out of nowhere and head in a goal past Zaiful.

This is a game where any lack of concentration will be severely punished. We have to keep our targets locked if we ever want a chance of winning and going to Asia again. Supporting Shawal will also be supported by LCS' two wing-backs in van Huizen and Zulqarnaen. They love to play up the flanks for a cheeky cross so we have to eliminate any possibilities of giving them a chance to whip it in.


Fans can make a difference, believe it or not. With the support of fans, our players feel more inclined to push harder. There's no doubt that the Sailors will have their Crew coming in huge numbers so we need to one up them. We aren't a fanbase with high expectations. We have one expectation and it's to give us what we have given back. When we fans give our 100%, we only expected 100% heart.

If you're coming, please do support Hougang United. Turn up in all black and blackout the entire Hougang section of Jalan Besar. This is a historic moment for our club with a possibility of going back-to-back after what has been a daunting season.

Hougang United

Win, lose, or draw, we'll always be with you

No silverware we don't care. Your pride is what we all share

Hougang HOOLs' Black Army will STAND WITH YOU!


LCS vs Hougang Quick Report:

- 4-2-3-1 formation preferred (LCS)

- Dangermen: Max Lestienne, Shawal Anuar, Diego Lopes, Zivkovic

- Loss of Hazzuwan, Shahdan, Gabriel and Kiki through injury.

— Tune in to the "Upcoming" section of our homepage after the matchday to see the latest scores. Or simply follow our 'hougang_hools' instagram page or 'Hougang United FC Supporters Club' on facebook to see video snippets or updates on latest scores. All images used are stocks or from the hougang united instagram page unless otherwise stated.

Can Hougang pull off back-to-back Cup titles?

  • 0%Yes!

  • 0%No… Its a stretch!

Which of our players will be key to our fight?

  • 0%Maksimovic

  • 0%Nazrul

  • 0%Amy Recha

  • 0%Ajay

You can vote for more than one answer.

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