Hougang United look to finish strong in AFC Cup ahead of Causeway clash with Sabah

The traditional Singapore-Malaysia rivalry will once again be renewed on Thursday when Hougang United host Sabah at Jalan Besar Stadium in Group H of the 2023-24 AFC Cup. Asian Football Confederation

Being on the receiving end of a tricky draw means that Hougang United understandably have not have had the easiest of times so far in the 2023-24 AFC Cup.

With four games down in their Group G campaign, the Singapore Premier League outfit have mustered just one win and sit bottom behind leaders Sabah (nine points) and joint-second placed Hai Phong and PSM Makassar (six points apiece).

The Cheetahs are down but they are not yet out, especially not when there is still a mathematical chance of them advancing to the knockout round.

And as if their own survival was not enough already to get them firing for their next outing on Thursday, there will also be added motivation in the form of a Causeway clash as the Singapore-Malaysia rivalry is renewed on the club front when Hougang host Sabah on Thursday.

"The rivalry has always been there, even at club level," Hougang defender Anders Aplin told ESPN.

"But also, we're playing in front of our fans.

"They've been tremendous throughout the season, they've been very supportive, and I think we really owe it to them to put in a good shift."

While Hougang may not have the sort of glamour that is associated with Singaporean football's heavyweights such as Lion City Sailors and Tampines Rovers, they are renowed for having an identity of their own and boast arguably the most passionate supporters in the entire SPL.

The significance of having that type of backing was not lost on Cheetahs coach Marko Kraljevic, especially in a must-win game where even the slightest of advantages could prove crucial.

"We represent Hougang, but also Singapore, in this competition," said the veteran tactician, who has spent the entirety of his 15-year managerial career in Singapore barring a brief spell in Malaysia with Kelantan FC.

"I think it's very important (to finish their last home game of the group-stage campaign on a high).

"(In the first two home games) I think we played well against the Vietnamese team (Hai Phong). Against the Indonesian team (PSM), we were very unlucky to lose.

"When we are the away team, it has been tough. So I think for them (Sabah), it will also be a bit tough and it will give us an advantage being at home.

"Everyone is looking forward to the game. Everyone wants to win."

For a team that are not one of the SPL's traditional heavyweights, Hougang have done well for themselves in recent times even if they may still be hampered by inconsistency.

Lofty third-place finishes in the league in 2019 and 2021 were the Cheetahs' best-ever in the SPL, while they have also now featured on the continental stage in three of the past four editions of the AFC Cup.

Even amid some tough tests this season, the experience is one that has been positive enough for Hougang to be aiming to get back to again in 2024 -- which they still stand a chance of achieving in the form of winning the Singapore Cup, where they are through to the semifinals.

"I remember I used to play in (the predecessor of) this competition and looking at it now - I'm looking forward to every game and so are the players," added Kraljevic.

"Everything about it is excellent.

"We seldom get that proper 'away' game feeling because we're just playing around Singapore. And I think we've actually found it difficult.

"What I feel is that usually for the first 20 to 30 minutes, we are a little shaky and need time to gel but, all around, it's been a beautiful experience for all of us.

"We're still looking forward to every game and we hope we can play in it again next year."