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Iqbal Hussain (14) slaloming past the Tampines Rovers defence to score the equaliser for Hougang United. (Photo: S.League)
He wanted to prove a point in his first Hougang United start last week, but instead endured a quiet outing.
On Wednesday night though, Iqbal Hussain was anything but quiet at Hougang Stadium.
Just five minutes after coming off the bench midway through the second half, he struck a stunning equaliser against Tampines Rovers to rescue a 1-1 draw.
The 22-year-old seized upon an errant pass outside the area, then waltzed past a defender before coolly finishing beyond Izwan Mahbud to score his first S.League goal since April last year.
It helped to repay the faith shown in him by the Cheetahs, who have accommodated and given opportunities to the full-time National Serviceman as he juggles national service with professional football.
Iqbal’s tough balancing act
Iqbal has served the past year in the Singapore Civil Defence Force and his camp is in the west of Singapore at Jalan Bahar - not exactly the most accessible of places.
“It’s not easy because you have to wake up early [daily] to do your job, then report here [for training] after that,” the former Young Lions player explained.
“I always rush down for games, [which means] sometimes I am also not quite prepared for the game,” he added. “I try to give my best whenever I am given a chance, be it from the bench or as a starter.”
The tricky forward was “nervous” in his last game but is looking forward to being more involved, having already made five appearances this season - one more than last year’s tally.
More eye-catching displays will also certainly put Iqbal into consideration for Singapore’s AFF Suzuki Cup come the end of the year. The once-capped youngster missed out in 2014 due to injury.
“It won’t be easy as everyone has an equal opportunity in S.League this year,” he noted. “My aim for the team this season is to finish in the top five. For me personally, it is to get called up for the Suzuki Cup.”
Billy Mehmet put Tampines Rovers ahead with a well-taken penalty. (Photo: S.League)
The point was a good result for Hougang, considering they lost Wahyudi Wahid to a straight red card in the 40th minute for tugging back Hafiz Sujad after the Tampines man went clear on goal. Billy Mehmet easily converted the penalty to put the visitors ahead.
But the hosts came out a different side after the break as they sought a way back into the game and it was almost impossible to tell they were a man down.
The manner in which they fought back surprised even Balagumaran, who simply did his best to reinforce their team spirit during the break.
“We needed fresh legs [near the end] but I didn’t know who to take out as they were all playing so well,” he chuckled.
“I told them that when you are down to 10 men, you’ve got to get up and fight. You have to go out there and run, you need to work hard. We just had to stay [united] as a team.”
Goalkeeper Khairulhin Khalid (in white) played a big part in Hougang United's comeback. (Photo: S.League)
Goalkeeper Khairulhin stands tall
The 51-year-old had praise for Iqbal’s “brilliant” goal, but also paid tribute to goalkeeper Khairulhin Khalid, who pulled off three tremendous stops.
The 24-year-old denied Fazrul Nawaz one-on-one just four minutes into the second half, before making an even better save with his left leg to keep out Shahdan Sulaiman’s effort from ten yards on the hour mark. A well-timed dive to whip the ball off Mehmet’s toes in the 73rd minute preserved the point.
“It was brilliant goalkeeping by ‘Khai’ - without him, we would have lost the game,” Balagumaran acknowledged, as his side remained unbeaten at home this season. “He’s my man of the match.”
Tampines boss V. Sundramoorthy pointed out that fatigue was at play after their eighth game since the start of April, but still rued his team’s profligacy and “sloppy” defending. The result left them two points behind leaders Albirex Niigata (S).
“If Shahdan had scored to make it 2-0, I don’t see any way back [for Hougang],” he said. “If you don’t take the chances, then you will be punished in football.
“We missed the chance to tie on points with Albirex and it’s really sad, especially when they had 10 players and we couldn’t capitalise.”