The relief on the Lion City Sailors bench at the end of what should have been a straightforward 90 minutes was palpable.

After all, the scoreline at the Bishan Stadium may have read 3-1 in favour of the Sailors over the Young Lions, but there was no mistaking the fact that on another day, the outcome could easily have been very different.

Ultimately, though, it was the Sailors’ tenacity, determination, and quality – especially in the final third – that made the difference, as Aleksandar Ranković’s men survived going down to 10 men to maintain their winning start to the 2024/2025 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season.

Playing in front of their home fans for the first time this season, the Sailors flew out of the blocks and dominated proceedings early on, with Hariss Harun and new signing Bart Ramselaar both coming close to opening the scoring.

It took just 19 minutes for the home side to make the breakthrough, as Shawal Anuar was set free down the left, and his pinpoint cross into the box was expertly volleyed by Maxime Lestienne past the despairing reach of Young Lions goalkeeper Umayr Sujuandy.

Bart – a constant threat to the Young Lions defence throughout the game – nearly doubled the Sailors’ lead just two minutes later, but his shot from the left was well kept out by Umayr.

But the Sailors did not have to wait too long for their next goal. In the 23rd minute, Bart found Maxime in acres of space down the right, and the Belgian sent an inviting low cross into the six-yard box for Shawal to tap the ball into an unguarded net.

Racing into an early two-goal lead, there were many at the Bishan Stadium who expected the Sailors to go on and rack up a heavy victory.

However, they allowed the Young Lions to settle into the affair and assert control over the game, much to Ranko’s chagrin.

“We started pretty well, got a 2-0 lead, then we just started doing some things that I wasn’t satisfied with,” Ranko said after the game. “I told the boys this is not the level we want to see. Of course, we’re happy with three points, but I’m not happy with how the team responded after going two goals up.”

Ranko’s misgivings turned out to be justified, as the visitors eventually reaped the rewards for their efforts in the third minute of first-half stoppage time.

A long punt from defence set Itsuki Enomoto through on goal, but the 23-year-old had his ankles clipped by a recovering Bailey Wright before he could get his shot away.

A penalty was initially awarded to the Young Lions for the infringement, but after a lengthy VAR review, it was found that contact was made just outside the box, and a free-kick was given instead.

However, this also meant that Bailey, as the Sailors’ last man, was handed his marching orders for denying a goalscoring opportunity.

With a numerical advantage, the Young Lions emerged from the break with renewed vigour, almost halving the deficit within just two minutes. A cross from the left found substitute Raoul Suhaimi unmarked at the far post, but the 18-year-old completely fluffed his shot, sending the ball harmlessly wide for a goal kick.

Three minutes later, Rashid Hayek flicked a header that found Enomoto in a dangerous position. However, the Japanese striker was unable to generate enough power or accuracy in his header to beat Sailors goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad from close range.

The misses proved costly for the Young Lions, as in the 57th minute, the Sailors got the all-important third goal through Bart, whose deflected effort at the end of yet another devastating counter-attack looped over Umayr and into the back of the net.

“It was a really important goal because in the second half, they (Young Lions) played really well. We were one man down as well, so it was difficult for us, and I think that the goal came at a good moment because they had a few chances in the second half,” reflected the former PSV Eindhoven man.

Despite the setback, the Young Lions continued to press on, and they finally got on the scoresheet in the 64th minute through captain Farhan Zulkifli, who nodded home from close range after capitalising on a well-placed header from Kan Kobayashi into the six-yard box.

The Young Lions had another golden opportunity to reduce the deficit eight minutes from time, as former Sailor Nur Adam Abdullah raced to the byline on the left before sending in a low, hard cross into the box. However, Zharfan just managed to get a touch on the ball to disrupt an onrushing Enomoto, who slid in but somehow failed to divert the ball into the back of an empty net.

Minutes later, another dangerous cross from the left found Jun Kobayashi unmarked in the box, but his header sailed just wide of the post, as the Sailors hung on to secure a valuable win that keeps them top of the SPL.

It was a battling victory that Ranko believes showed the strength of character of this Sailors side.

“I have to compliment the boys for the character they showed because it’s not easy to play with 10 men, especially against this Young Lions team,” said Ranko.

“They (Young Lions) might still lack experience, but I’m certain they are going to pose problems for other teams in the league. However, I think we defended well, and it was important that we managed to score even with a man down.”

Bart, who was named Man of the Match, echoed Ranko’s sentiments, but added that the Sailors were always confident of getting the win.

“I wouldn’t say we were worried (that the Young Lions would equalise), but we knew we had to work very hard,” the Dutchman elaborated. “We did give them maybe too many chances in the second half, although I think we also created some good opportunities for ourselves.

“What certainly helped us was the wonderful atmosphere created by our fans – we were all motivated to fight and get the three points for them.”

The Sailors will have a short break in between matches, with their next SPL game scheduled for 15 June after the international break as they take on Brunei DPMM away at the Hassanal Bolkiah Stadium.