The Singapore Premier League (SPL) may have only just concluded, but Lion City Sailors head coach Aurelio Vidmar has already set his expectations out for the coming season.
And the Australian made no bones about what he expected to see from his charges next year: progress and evolution.
The Sailors were unable to achieve their target of winning the league title this campaign, finishing five points behind champions Albirex Niigata (S) in third.
While Aurelio still graded the Sailors’ season a “big pass”, he made it clear that he expected more from the team next year.
“We have to see improvement for next season, and we have to progress and evolve,” Aurelio declared. “That’s what we’ll be doing, trying to strengthen the team across the board.
“We set this year as the time for us to get an understanding of what we’re doing, and I think we’ve got a good foundation. All of the clubs had the hiccup with the Covid-19 situation that put everyone on the backfoot.
“But I think we came out of that period well, and so I would rate our season overall a big pass.”
Aurelio revealed that of the most pleasing aspects of the Sailors’ season was their ability to find the back of the net – they finished as the highest scoring team in the league with 44 goals, and only failed to score in just one match.
He said: “It’s great to see us scoring that many goals. What’s more, I think we scored more than a dozen goals in the final 10 minutes games, so that showed we have a very good level of fitness which allowed us to keep pushing to the last minute.
“But the highlight for me would be to see the progress we’ve made as a team, from when I joined the club last December to the end of the season. That, as a whole, was very pleasing.”
The Sailors were the big winners at the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) awards night, with Gabriel Quak being named the SPL Player of the Year, Saifullah Akbar winning the Young Player of the Year, and Stipe Plazibat bagging the Top Scorer award.
In addition, a total of five Sailors – Gabriel, Stipe, Song Ui-Young, Kaishu Yamazaki and Tajeli Salamat – were named in the SPL Team of the Year.
Aurelio, however, was keen to emphasise on the importance of the collective. He explained: “I don’t like to talk about individual players, but I think it’s clear there are many players throughout the season who have done very well, and some of those guys have rightly won awards. But there are many others who have impressed as well, but just don’t get the accolades.”
By virtue of finishing third in the SPL, the Sailors will be granted entry into next season’s AFC Cup.
And Aurelio has set his sights on winning the regional competition, along with becoming SPL champions and lifting the Singapore Cup.
“As always with the SPL and the AFC Cup, we’re looking to win it,” Aurelio said. “Every competition we enter, we want to be one of the teams that think they can win it. It’s no different for the AFC Cup, although we’ll have to wait and see where we are in terms of the pots and where we are in terms of who we’re playing, and how that whole format is going to pan out because at this stage we’re not really sure.
“But it will be a huge challenge for everyone as it’s going to be a long, tough season with the Singapore Cup, SPL and the AFC Cup.
“But we’re determined to win every competition, so I told the players before they went on their break that they should enjoy the rest with their families and friends, because next year we’ll be working even harder to achieve our goals.”
It was a thrilling debut season for the Lion City Sailors. Aurelio Vidmar’s men plundered 44 goals in 14 matches and played attractive attacking football en route to a third-placed finish in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) – securing AFC Cup qualification in the process.
It is now time to look back on the defining moments of the Sailors’ campaign and reflect on what has been a gruelling season for the team, while also looking ahead to the following year.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first – there is no doubt what the lowest point of the Sailors’ season was. After starting the campaign with a disappointing 1-1 draw against the Tanjong Pagar United, the Sailors faced a difficult task in their very next match, facing title rivals Tampines Rovers at Our Tampines Hub (OTH). The Sailors acquitted themselves well and were arguably the better side in the first half-hour, albeit without being able to put their chances away. The team, however, failed to replicate their intensity and sharpness in the second half. The Stags duly capitalised, and eventually ran out 4-0 winners.
The margin of the defeat, along with the winless start to the season, saw the Sailors come in for much criticism on social media, and pressure began mounting on Aurelio and the Sailors despite it still being early days. But that is the territory that comes along with being Singapore’s first-ever privatised football club – the expectations are higher, and any shortfall is deemed unacceptable.
The seven-month enforced hiatus to the season due to Covid-19 gave the Sailors an opportunity to better adjust to Aurelio’s philosophy, and allowed them to iron out the kinks from the first two games. And the team subsequently returned stronger for the league’s restart in mid-October. Indeed, the Sailors would put together a run of three successive wins over 10 days in November – scoring a staggering 16 goals in just over 270 minutes – to reduce the gap between them and the top of the table to just three points, with five games to go.
What was pleasing, however, was that Aurelio’s men played some scintillating football in those three matches – blitzing Balestier Khalsa and Tanjong Pagar United 7-1 and 6-1 respectively, before coming through a difficult away game against Hougang United to win 3-1. The team’s progress was clearly evident, and many began to view the Sailors as serious contenders for the title.
Performance of the season
Without a doubt, the 7-1 thrashing of Balestier. Many expected this fixture to be a tough one for the Sailors – after all, they were coming into the game off a frustrating 1-1 home draw with Hougang, while the Tigers were flying high after recording victories in their first two games after the restart.
But the Sailors tore up the script and showed just what they were made of in this match. Known for being slow starters prior to this game, the Sailors showed urgency and intent from the get-go as they went 5-0 up in the span of 34 minutes through some superb team play that came right off the training ground.
Stipe Plazibat ran the show for the Sailors scoring a fantastic hat-trick, while also laying on two clever assists for Song Ui-Young and Saifullah Akbar. The Tigers simply did not know what hit them as the Aurelio and his charges took the largest half-time lead since the league was rebranded as the SPL in 2018.
The Sailors did not rest on their laurels, with Tajeli Salamat and Adam Swandi adding further goals in the second half to add gloss to the scoreline. It was a performance and result that went a long way in convincing many that the Sailors are indeed the real deal.
Most improved player
A number of players have improved under the tutelage of coach Aurelio, but the standout has got to be experienced right-back Aqhari Abdullah. Though he was not selected for the Sailors’ first two outings in March, the 29-year-old worked hard to reclaim his spot in the starting eleven after the league restart, and has since proven himself to be a modern full-back.
Previously known simply for his defensive attributes, Aqhari has this season developed an attacking edge to his game, with the full-back constantly pushing up to support the attack and whipping in dangerous crosses for his forwards. His determination and willingness to re-invent his play at this stage of his career is something that will surely inspire younger players.
Song Ui-Young vs Tanjong Pagar United (13 Nov)
It was a goal that encapsulated the seemingly telepathic understanding between the Sailors’ attackers this season. Receiving the ball from Stipe, Song instantly laid the ball back into the Croatian striker’s path, and made a darting run into the area in expectation of a through pass. Stipe duly obliged and returned the ball to him with precision, and Song coolly finished off the move past Tanjong Pagar keeper Kenji Rusydi to put the Sailors three goals up in their eventual 6-1 win.
Gabriel Quak vs Geylang International (25 Nov)
The newly-crowned SPL Player of the Year, Gabriel, has been unplayable at times this campaign. And the 29-year-old stole the show in the Sailors’ 3-0 win over Geylang at OTH with a brilliant individual effort late in the game. It looked like Gabriel still had plenty of work to do when Hafiz Nor played the ball into his path just outside the six-yard box, but the Singapore international took out Yuki Ichiakawa with a cheeky backheel turn, proceeded to leave Adam Hakeem on his backside with another silky touch, before firing past Hairul Syirhan with a toe-poke. A classy goal from a classy player.
Saifullah Akbar vs Balestier Khalsa (5 Dec)
Keeping the ball with purpose before upping the tempo at the right time and attacking the opponent with lightning speed – that has been the Sailors’ way in 2020.
Saifullah’s goal against Balestier in the final game of the season perfectly illustrated this philosophy. When Tajeli headed the ball away in defence, his teammates quickly moved into open spaces to receive the ball. Hafiz Nor picked up the loose ball and played it back to Faizal Roslan, who passed it forward to Izzdin Shafiq. The Sailors captain then laid it on to Shahril Ishak, who instinctively played a through ball down the right for Hafiz. The nippy winger sprinted to the by-line before whipping in a pinpoint cross for Saifullah to thump home a stunning first-time volley past a rooted Zaiful Nizam in the Balestier goal.
With years of experience coaching abroad, and having famously led Adelaide United to the AFC Champions League final in 2008, there were massive expectations heaped on Aurelio Vidmar when he joined the Sailors. As with any new coach, it took some time for Aurelio to implement his ideas and get players to align themselves with his philosophy – and the team did struggle in the beginning.
However, the 53-year-old’s possession-based philosophy soon began to rub off on the players, and they became more and more efficient in playing the Aurelio way. He not only helped to bring young talents like Naqiuddin Eunos, Arshad Shamim and Saifullah to another level, but also managed to re-invent the experienced stars in the squad such as the aforementioned Aqhari and Gabriel – who impressed in a false nine role. The fact that the team averaged more than three goals a game this season is a testament to his coaching methods.
A number of players have also praised the personal touch of Aurelio, who makes it a point to give advice to every individual in the squad, while also listening and taking on board what they have to share. The Sailors are in good hands with him at the helm.
Ones to watch out for next season
It was a promising first season for one of the most talented young playmakers in the country. Often deployed in a midfield three along with Shahdan Sulaiman and Song, Saifullah is beginning to develop into a modern attacking midfielder who can both create and score goals.
With two goals and one assist this year, the onus is on the 21-year-old to raise his game to yet another level. We hope to see him influence the game and drive the team on even more next year, while also recording more goal involvements!
We do not need to say much about the impact Stipe has made on this team since his arrival in the mid-season transfer window. Apart from his goalscoring exploits, his intelligent and unselfish all-round play was a key component in making the Sailors’ attack tick.
It was a pity that a hamstring problem meant the 31-year-old barely played a part in the final few matches of the season. With the striker determined to work past his injury issues for next season, and with proper rest and recuperation, fans will be waiting with bated breath to see how a fully-fit Stipe can influence the team in his first full season with the Sailors.
Sailors’ 2020 team and individual stats (selected)
Top scorers – Stipe Plazibat – 9, Song Ui-Young – 9, Gabriel Quak – 5
Top assisters – Gabriel Quak – 7, Shahdan Sulaiman – 6, Stipe Plazibat – 5.
Total goals – 44 (highest in league, 12 more than nearest challengers Albirex)
Total shots – 208 (third-highest behind Albirex’s 237 and Tampines’s 214)
Total shots on target – 86 (second-highest behind Tampines’ 100)
Goals conceded – 18 (third-lowest behind Tampines’ 11 and Albirex’s 14)
Goal difference – +26 (highest, eight more than nearest challengers Albirex)
Total fouls – 169 (lowest, eight less than nearest challengers Geylang)
Yellow cards – 24 (second-lowest, five more than Albirex’s 19)
Red cards – 0 (one of only two teams along with Albirex with no explusions)
No. of goalscorers – 12 (joint-highest with Albirex)
- Stipe Plazibat – 9
- Song Ui-young – 9
- Gabriel Quak – 5
- Adam Swandi – 4
- Shahril Ishak – 3
- Shahdan Sulaiman – 2
- Saifullah Akbar – 2
- Arshad Shamim – 2
- Kaishu Yamazaki – 2
- Tajeli Salamat – 2
- Hafiz Nor – 1
- Andrew Pengelly – 1
If you were to take a look at Gabriel Quak’s highlight reel this year, you would see an array of tricks and flicks, long-range goals, clever assists, and even a cheeky individual effort that he counts among his personal highlights this season.
Not for nothing was Gabriel selected as the Singapore Premier League’s (SPL) Player of the Year – the 29-year-old has had an outstanding campaign for the Lion City Sailors, racking up five goals and seven assists in a truncated 14-game season.
The Singapore international, however, believes it was not the eye-catching things he did on the pitch which led to him winning the Player of the Year award.
Rather, it was the consistency he showed throughout the season that gave him the edge over the other two contenders for the Player of the Year award – teammate Stipe Plazibat and Albirex Niigata (S) striker Tomoyuki Doi.
“When I was in my early-20s, I would play well in one or two games, then not do so well in the next two matches,” Gabriel explained. “I already knew what I could offer, and there were brilliant moments, yes, but there also moments where I went cold.
“But over time, and especially this year, I’ve added consistency into my game. And I think that’s what the fans, the coach, and my teammates want to see, because they would like someone who’s reliable and can be called upon to deliver.
“I’ve shown in every game this season that I’m able to consistently contribute goals and assists or play a key part in the build-up. That’s the most pleasing thing for me this year.”
Gabriel, who joined the Sailors earlier this year after leaving Warriors FC at the end of last season, highlighted the desire to make the most of his footballing career as a driving force behind his consistency.
“A footballer’s career is not long, and each year only brings you closer to the finish line,” Gabriel mused. “In the last few years especially, I’ve been more focused on getting my game to a higher level. And this year, with me joining a new club and being happy where I am, I am better able to perform on the pitch.”
Gabriel also credited Sailors head coach Aurelio Vidmar for giving him the freedom to express himself on the pitch.
“As an attacker, if I’m playing in a team that wants to park the bus, I won’t be able to showcase my true ability,” said Gabriel. “So, I think the Sailors’ possession-based, attacking style of play suits me perfectly, while coach Aurelio gives me the trust and the freedom to express myself in the attacking third – and that has reaped dividends.”
Having been deployed either on the wings, in the centre of the park, or as a false-9 by Aurelio this season, the versatile Gabriel is relishing the responsibility of being among the team’s most important players.
Nonetheless, the ex-Navy FC star acknowledges that he can only do so much as just one of 11 players out on the pitch.
That is why he is encouraged to see the quality and strength in depth of this Sailors squad, which had five players in the SPL’s Team of the Year. In addition, Stipe also took home the Top Scorer award, while midfielder Saifullah Akbar was named the Young Player of the Year.
“It’s good that my teammates bagged their awards because it will only do wonders for their confidence,” Gabriel said. “And when you get that good vibe, it can rub off on the whole team.
“When you know that your striker is the top scorer, and behind him, you have the Young Player of the Year, you go into every game full of confidence. So, it’s definitely exciting to be in this team, and I think we can do something good together next season.”
And what exactly is the “something good” that Gabriel thinks the team can achieve?
“We have to win a trophy next season,” Gabriel declared emphatically. “Although we gave a good account of ourselves this year, we fell short. I think it’s not acceptable. We really need to go for it, there’s no room for failure next season.
“If it’s a full season, with both the Singapore Cup and the AFC Cup, it’ll be a tough one. But with the depth that we have, we can achieve something great. It’s a crucial year for us, and everyone needs to step up.
“And I think we can.”
He may have been one of the most consistent players in the Lion City Sailors this season, but Saifullah Akbar was still surprised to learn that he had won the Singapore Premier League’s (SPL) Young Player of the Year award.
After all, the ambitious 21-year-old still believes that if he had played better this year, especially in the matches that the Sailors failed to win, his team could have secured the SPL title.
“I actually think I had a decent season, not a fantastic one,” admitted Saifullah. “I was able to perform consistently in general, but I still look back at some matches and think that I could have played better, which might have helped us get the three points.
“To be very honest, I didn’t set my sights on winning the Young Player of the Year award this season. And so, I got excited when I knew I was nominated because it’s such a prestigious award. To then know that I’ve actually won it is an unbelievably amazing feeling.”
It is exactly this sort of winning mindset that has helped Saifullah earn the trust of head coach Aurelio Vidmar, with the Singapore Under-22 international starting 11 of the 14 league games this season.
But, how did Saifullah make such huge strides in his development as a player this season?
By taking care of “the little things”, says the ex-Tampines Rovers player.
He elaborates further: “As coach Aurelio always tells us, ‘the little things matter’. This means things like ensuring that you eat well, sleep well, take recovery sessions seriously, and to not skip a day of doing all these things because there is no shortcut to success.
“I feel that all these little things that I’ve been working hard to maintain have paid off, and probably played a big part in my performances this season.
“I also have to thank the coaches and the club for giving me this opportunity to perform, as I needed this consistency of performances to really kick start my footballing career.”
Among the areas where Saifullah has improved significantly is in the attacking third, with his intelligent runs into the box often causing havoc among opposition defences.
This has helped him record two goals – including a sumptuous volley against Balestier Khalsa in the Sailors’ final fixture – and one assist, and Saifullah counts those contributions among his personal highlights this year.
“Last season, I scored two penalties for the Young Lions and scored one deflected goal, but none of them were from open play,” said Saifullah. “So, to score twice from open play this season has got to be the highlight, especially as the goals came about because of my late runs into the box, which I’ve added to my gameplay.
“But I think I’ve also improved in terms of running box to box to help out both the defence and attack, and I feel like I’m developing into an all-round midfielder now.
“Obviously, I still have lots to improve. But now, with my Young Player of the Year award win, the bar is set at a high level. The only way for me to go from here is to push myself to an even higher level.”
When asked what his goal was for next season, however, Saifullah immediately put the team first, declaring: “It has got to be us winning the league. That’s the goal that we’ve got to achieve for sure.
“As for one of my personal goals, it’s to hopefully make my debut in regional competition for the Sailors and play in the AFC Cup.”
To score 14 goals in a truncated Singapore Premier League (SPL) season where only 14 rounds of games were played is an incredible feat. Lion City Sailors striker Stipe Plazibat did exactly that this year.
And so, it is no surprise that the Croatian hotshot comfortably won the SPL Top Scorer award this campaign, finishing three goals ahead of Albirex Niigata (S) forward Tomoyuki Doi in second. Fellow Sailor Song Ui-Young and Tampines Rovers’ Boris Kopitovic ended joint-third in the scoring charts with nine goals apiece.
While Stipe’s reputation as a prolific forward is well-known, this is the first year that he has finished the season as the league’s top scorer. And the 31-year-old attributes his superb goalscoring form this season to being deployed as an out-and-out striker, while also acknowledging that he owed much of his goals to the assists from his Sailors teammates.
“I think it was important that I played the whole year in the number 9 role,” explained Stipe, who last year was deployed either on the right wing or in the middle of the pitch at his former club Hougang United.
“I showed in the 2017 season already that when I play in the (forward) position, I can score a lot of goals, and I proved it again this year. However, I have to also give credit to my teammates. They make it easier to score by creating very good chances for me, so kudos to them as well.
“On an individual level, I thought my season was superb and I’m satisfied with it. Winning the top scorer award was very nice, because I was always there as the top two or three (scorers) in previous seasons, but this is the first time I’ve finished as the top scorer, and it feels really good.”
Stipe could have had more goals to this name this season, but for a hamstring injury that restricted him to just a five-minute cameo in the Sailors’ last five fixtures, including the crucial clashes against eventual league champions Albirex and second-placed Tampines.
The Sailors, who finished third in the league this season, will be challenging for honours on multiple fronts next year – the SPL, Singapore Cup, and AFC Cup. And a fired-up Stipe is determined to do all he can to keep himself fit so as to lead the team to glory in all three competitions.
“I couldn’t play the last few matches because of a hamstring issue, so I’ll need to work more on muscle injury prevention going into next season,” Stipe declared.
“Naturally, I am the kind of person who always wants more and to do better, so I am expecting improved performances from myself next year. Hopefully with that, I can lead the team to win trophies!”
The disappointment etched on the faces of the Lion City Sailors players at the final whistle on Wednesday night was palpable.
The 1-1 draw with Tampines Rovers in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) meant they missed out on qualifying for next season’s AFC Champions League.
On the surface, it would have been easy to brand the Sailors’ debut season a washout. After all, they had fallen short of their initial target of winning the SPL title this year, and would also not finish the season as the best local team in the league.
But a closer look at their overall campaign illustrates that there are plenty of reasons why this year can still be considered a success for the Sailors, and why fans should be excited about what the team can deliver next season.
Rising stars raise their game to the next level
It has been a good year for the Sailors’ Under-23 youngsters, with a number of them given significant playing time and becoming better players. Just look at Naqiuddin Eunos, who made the left-back position his own this season despite originally being a winger. The 23-year-old has started every game this season, and has improved tremendously while going toe-to-toe with top SPL attackers such as Jordan Webb, Shawal Anuar and Hazzuwan Halim without looking out of place.
Further up the field, Saifullah Akbar has been a revelation in the middle of the pitch. Often deployed as part of a midfield three, the technically gifted 21-year-old’s mature performances alongside his senior teammates Shahdan Sulaiman and Song Ui-Young has seen him earn the trust of head coach Aurelio Vidmar. He has gradually developed into a modern playmaker who is capable of not just playing the passes, but also getting on the end of moves to finish them off.
In attack, electric winger Arshad Shamim has added end product to his blistering style of play with key goal involvements in the 4-0 win over Young Lions and the 1-1 draw with Tampines. Hardworking and industrious, the 20-year-old has certainly shown that he has the potential to be a national team player in future.
With the advantage of working day in day out with top quality players, the Lion City Sailors provide an ideal environment for these starlets to develop and thrive. Expect more of such young talents to burst onto the scene under the tutelage of coach Aurelio in the coming seasons.
Re-inventing experienced players and bringing the best out of them
It is not just the young players who are shining – the more experienced stars at the club have evolved and upped their game to another level as well. While there may be a tendency for experienced players to simply rely on skill sets and attributes they have honed over the years, coach Aurelio has challenged his senior stars to get out of their comfort zone and re-invent themselves to suit his tactical system.
And they have responded magnificently.
Known as a combative no-nonsense defender over the years, Aqhari Abdullah has morphed into a modern full-back this season with the ability to bomb forward and put in dangerous crosses into the area.
And how can we not mention the transformation of Gabriel Quak, who has contributed five goals and seven assists so far? Yes, the 29-year-old midfielder – who has been deployed on the wings for most of his career – did start playing centrally while at his previous club Warriors FC back in 2019. But this season, Gabriel has managed to be even more influential in central areas for the Sailors.
Often moving infield to link up effectively with the other attackers, he would also cause havoc in opposition defences with his intelligent off-the-ball running through the middle of the park. And, with chief forward Stipe Plazibat unable to play the last few games of the season due to injury, Aurelio has deployed Gabriel as a False 9 up top to devastating effect – just look at the impact he made in the 3-0 win over Geylang International in the dying stages of the game.
Attractive possession-based football
Even though results this season may not have always gone their way, the Sailors have persisted with playing an attractive brand of football throughout, and that has won over admirers. Ever since the league restarted in mid-October, coach Aurelio’s philosophy of a possession-based style of play has been evident in all the matches, with some of the football they put on display worthy of being included in a highlights reel.
The football has been free-flowing at times, with the Sailors midfielders and attackers exchanging passes at an almost telepathic level and showing great interchange of play in the final third. The best example was Song’s goal in the Sailors’ 6-1 win over Tanjong Pagar United where he played a couple of one-twos with Stipe, before lashing the ball into the back of the net to cap off a superb team goal.
Courtesy of the hard work put on the training ground, every player now knows their role on the counter – this understanding was evident in the opening goal of the Sailors’ 3-0 away win over Geylang, with the move starting all the way at the back with Hassan Sunny and ending with Song’s emphatic finish.
The Sailors have also picked up the second-highest number of points – 23 – among the eight teams since the restart, which shows the fruits of playing a style of football that is pleasing on the eye. The Sailors’ approach to the game is one which can help Singapore football on a whole – not just in terms of attracting fans to the stadiums (once restrictions are lifted), but also one that helps improve the players and puts them in good stead to face quality international opponents.
Fearsome attacking prowess
If there is one thing you can be certain of when you watch a Sailors’ game, it is that there will be goals. Aurelio’s men have scored in every single game this season, bar the 4-0 loss to Tampines earlier in March.
No team has recorded more than the Sailors’ tally of 38 goals since the restart, with the team averaging more than three goals per game. No less than 12 different Sailors have also found the back of the net this season – even centre-backs Kaishu Yamazaki and Tajeli Salamat have a couple of goals each! This just goes to show that the team does not solely rely on Stipe for goals.
It has also long been lamented that there is a dearth of local strikers who can hit the back of the net on a regular basis. Based on how the Sailors’ local attacking contingent performed this year, those worries may soon be put to rest. After all, Gabriel is the top local scorer with five goals despite not playing as an out-and-out forward. Adam Swandi has four goals to his name – all of which came from the bench – while the evergreen Shahril Ishak has scored twice despite his limited game time. It goes to show that with hard work and proper guidance, these local players can flourish in the goalscoring department.
Fighting spirit and impressive fitness levels
As cliché as it sounds, the hallmark of a great team is how they react when the chips are down. And it was evident throughout the season that this group of players have tremendous team spirit, as they kept fighting for one another throughout the full 90 minutes of each game. Whenever the team trailed, there was no sulking or finger-pointing. The team simply rallied together to muster a response.
Another trend over the course of the season is that the Sailors tend to finish matches as the stronger side, just like how they did against Tampines at the Bishan Stadium. The statistics back this point up – among the eight teams in the league, Aurelio’s men have scored the greatest number of goals (10) in the final 10 minutes. Their nearest challengers in this aspect, Albirex, have only managed to record six goals.
Being able to finish the game strongly can be attributed to the impressive fitness levels of the team. It is a real feat, given that the Sailors had to play more matches since the restart as compared to other teams – with a gruelling schedule of 11 games played over 36 days prior to the final game against Balestier. Credit also has to be given to the medical and fitness department for their tireless work in getting the players to recover and keep them in optimal condition.
The players’ superior fitness levels and tremendous work ethic will only serve the team well, especially at the continental level where they will face bigger and fitter opponents. Hopefully, that will come in the form of the AFC Champions League in the near future. For now, though, the Sailors have to be content with the second-tier AFC Cup – which could prove to be a perfect tune-up for the team’s future ambitions.
Proud. Fantastic. Amazing.
These were the words that Lion City Sailors head coach Aurelio Vidmar used to describe his players in the aftermath of his team’s 1-1 draw with Tampines Rovers at the Bishan Stadium in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) on Wednesday evening (Dec 2).
The message from Aurelio to his team could not have been clearer. While the draw meant the Sailors could no longer achieve their aim of qualifying for next season’s Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) – they needed to beat the Stags in order to stand a chance of doing so – Aurelio was far from upset with what he had seen from his charges over the course of a gruelling season.
“I’m not disappointed at all. I think we’ve come a long way since the beginning when I first came here,” the Australian reflected. “We all wanted the same thing, to win the SPL, but it didn’t eventuate. Nonetheless, I’m super proud of the players’ performances up to this point.
“It’s a fantastic effort from everyone. It hasn’t been easy because we’ve had a lot of games in a short span of time. But the players did an amazing job to keep themselves fit, fresh and upbeat right through this whole period.”
But it could have been so different for the Sailors had they capitalised on their dominance in the first-half against Tampines. Song Ui-Young and Gabriel Quak came close to scoring for the Sailors, but it was experienced forward Shahril Ishak who eventually broke the deadlock on the cusp of half-time, as he bundled home Arshad Shamim’s cutback at the second time of asking.
The visitors grew into the game in the second half, and eventually found the equaliser in the 62nd minute through Zehrudin Mehmedović.
While the Sailors picked up the pace in the final 10 minutes of the game, they were unable to get the winning goal they needed.
Acknowledging that his team faded after the break, Aurelio said: “I thought we had a very good first-half where we controlled the game. We deserved the lead, and definitely could have had another goal in that first-half.
“In the second-half, we started to lose the ball a bit too much. There are some reasons why we did that – we weren’t able to squeeze the lines between the defenders and the forwards, and the gaps started to appear. but it’s quite understandable, because we came to this point now right at the end after having absolutely worked our socks off, and we just lacked a little bit of legs.”
Having lost 4-0 to Tampines in the reverse fixture at Our Tampines Hub in March before the SPL was suspended, the Sailors showed just how much they had progressed over the course of the season – they more than matched Gavin Lee’s men throughout the 90 minutes.
Aurelio revealed he never had any doubt that his players were better than the defeat to Tampines had suggested, and credited them for working hard to improve to their current level, despite the disruption caused by Covid-19 and a truncated SPL season.
“I was always confident the improvement was going to happen. Yes, we started slowly, because I had somewhat planned it in terms of 27 league games that we want to be playing at a high tempo right through to round 27,” Aurelio explained.
“That’s why we had a slower start, although I knew back then that we would be able to play in this type of way anyway. It just takes time, and we’re now a completely different side to the one we were in March.”
While the Sailors may have been unable to win the title and qualify for the ACL this year, Aurelio made no bones about what he expects from the Sailors next season.
“Next year there’s only one thing on my mind, and it should be on everyone else’s – we have to win it. It’s very simple, very clear,” said Aurelio. “Things just don’t happen quickly in a small space of time. We needed time to build, to get trust and build confidence, and to get people to understand exactly what the requirements are.
“Such things don’t happen overnight. There’s a lot that goes into preparing players and the team as a whole. Everyone at the club has done a remarkable job so far, but next year has to be our year.”
In the immediate future, however, the Sailors will have to turn their attention to the visit of Balestier Khalsa on Saturday (Dec 5), 5.30pm, at the Bishan Stadium.
Though the match is effectively a dead rubber for the Sailors, who will finish third in the table regardless of the result, Aurelio insists his players will give nothing but their 100 per cent for their final fixture of the season.
“There is always something to play for, regardless what it means mathematically. We are not going to be a team that is going to go into a game to lie down and not compete. That’s just never going to happen,” Aurelio declared emphatically.
“It’s our responsibility as professional sportspeople to go and compete. We’re not going to play Balestier thinking it’s a holiday. After Saturday, they’re going to get the nice break they richly deserve. But not until after the game.”
In the blink of an eye, we are down to the penultimate fixture of the Singapore Premier League (SPL) season.
While the Lion City Sailors have been in impressive form since the league restarted in mid-October, they currently find themselves third in the table – three points off Albirex Niigata (S) and a further point behind leaders Tampines Rovers.
Clinching the SPL title is still mathematically possible, but the Sailors require more than a bit of luck going their way in the other fixtures – both Albirex and Tampines must drop points in their final two games for the Sailors to stand a chance of winning the league.
A more realistic target for the Sailors would be to achieve qualification for the 2021 AFC Champions League (ACL) group stages by finishing the season as the best local team.
To do that, however, Aurelio Vidmar’s men must first beat Tampines on Wednesday evening (Dec 2) to narrow the gap between the teams to just one point. Fail to do that, and the Sailors’ ACL dream is over.
But, should they secure all three points against Tampines, the Sailors will enter the final round of SPL fixtures on Saturday (Nov 5) with every chance of qualifying for the ACL.
After all, the Sailors will take on Balestier Khalsa – who they beat 7-1 early last month – while the Stags face a tricky clash against Eastern rivals Geylang International, who themselves are chasing qualification into the AFC Cup, the second-tier regional competition.
Though the Sailors are not the favourites to secure ACL qualification, let alone win the title, midfielder Gabriel Quak believes ‘stranger things have happened’ in football, and urged the team to simply focus on their immediate task at hand: beating Tampines.
“I can give you two very good examples (of strange things happening in football) – firstly, in 2018, Bangkok Glass (now BG Pathum United) just needed a draw on the final day to stay up. But they lost, and other results went against them, so they suffered an unlikely relegation to Thai League 2,” said the 29-year-old, who played in Thai League 1 with Navy FC that year.
“Then, last year, for Chiangrai United to win the league, they needed to beat Suphanburi, while Buriram had to drop points against bottom-placed team Chiangmai FC. The chances of that happening were very slim, but it happened. So, anything can happen – but we need to first focus on beating Tampines before we can talk about achieving the unlikely.”
Apart from their ACL aspirations, the Sailors will also have a point to prove in this game, following their heavy 0-4 defeat at Our Tampines Hub in the reverse fixture in March.
“We weren’t 100 per cent ready at that stage of the season and Tampines probably deserved that win in the first round,” recalled Coach Aurelio. “But it is how it is. We can’t bring back what has happened in the past, we can only learn from it and improve.”
Tampines certainly have quality in their ranks in the likes of Jordan Webb and Boris Kopitovic, but Gabriel believes the Sailors have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the league leaders. As such, he does not think there is a need for the Sailors to detract from their attacking philosophy to counter the threat of Tampines.
“Tampines are now the favourites for the title and they know they will be champions if they win their last two games, so the onus is on them to come and take the three points from us,” he explained.
“We do need to be wary and cautious of them, but we won’t change our approach – we always play to win and entertain the fans. That’s the only way for our team to progress.”
Centre-back Tajeli Salamat, who will be looking to reprise his partnership with Kaishu Yamazaki at the heart of the Sailors defence, echoed similar sentiments.
“I’m not going to worry too much about them – for sure Jordan and Kopi are good individuals, but we do have talented players too,” said the 26-year-old, who has featured in every game this campaign after moving from Warriors FC in the off-season.
“The key to shutting them down is through a collective effort. Whichever team is hungrier and makes the fewest mistakes will get the victory!”
Given that this clash between two massively ambitious teams will likely be a high-octane affair, goalkeeper and vice-captain Hassan Sunny emphasised the need to remain calm in the heat of battle.
“With both teams having many experienced players, it’ll boil down to how they or we manage pressure as a team,” said the 36-year-old, who was part of Warriors FC’s league-winning side in 2014.
“Of course, Tampines will be difficult to play against because of the quality in their team, but we have good players as well. We just have to focus on our task to win this game, as well as on our final fixture against Balestier.”
Under Coach Aurelio’s tutelage, several local players within the Sailors squad have flourished. One of those is speedy young winger Arshad Shamim, who played a starring role in the team’s 4-0 win over the Young Lions last Sunday.
“It was one of my best games in my career so far, and I hope Coach will trust me to start against Tampines after that performance (against the Young Lions),” the 21-year-old said. “Out of my three seasons with the senior team, this has been the best year for me. Coach Aurelio’s belief in my potential definitely gives me a boost in confidence, and my game has improved immensely under him.
“It’s been a delight to play with this team as we know each other’s strengths and we play to that. It’s also a great honour to be playing with the likes of Shahril (Ishak) and Gabriel in attack – I’m learning a lot from them not just in matches, but also every single day in training.”
With the season coming to a close, Gabriel admits he will be disappointed if the Sailors finish third in the league, and he has vowed to do his utmost to help the team as high up the table as possible – and hopefully achieve ACL qualification.
“Right from the start, we wanted to be champions or at least qualify for the ACL,” reflected the Singapore international. “After not starting well, it’s always tough to play catch-up. And when it’s only two rounds this season, it means we have to sprint (in the league).
“We’ve done all we can. While some results did not go our way (especially the two narrow defeats to Albirex), we’ve been one of the more entertaining teams this season, and I think we have won some fans over with the way we play. This puts us in good stead for next season, but for now I’m going all out to help the team make it to the ACL.”