Maiden Voyage: Kim-pressive pair out to fashion a memorable ACL debut

The Lion City Sailors will be making their first-ever appearance in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) this year, but there are some among their number who are no strangers to the region’s top-tier club competition – including a pair who have not only amassed experience playing and managing in the ACL, but have also won the competition itself: Sailors Head Coach Kim Do-Hoon and 33-year-old striker Kim Shin-wook.

The older Kim – whose name is already carved into the annals of ACL history as the first player to ever score a hat-trick in the competition in 2003 – coached South Korean side Ulsan Hyundai to the ACL title barely two years ago.

Shin-wook’s achievements in the ACL are equally, if not more impressive. The deadly poacher has played 52 games in the competition so far, with 20 goals and 10 assists to his name, and crucially, has won the ACL title twice, with Ulsan Hyundai in 2012 and again in 2016, as part of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

It is no surprise, then, that all eyes will be on the two Kims when the Sailors make their long-awaited appearance in the ACL later this month.

Despite their familiarity with the ACL, however, both Do-hoon and Shin-wook are expecting a vastly different experience in the tournament this time around.

Shin-wook said: “Each ACL campaign is already unique, but this year, playing for a new club, it’s going to be completely different to what I’ve experienced in the competition with my previous teams.”

Do-hoon is relishing the experience of being the man in charge of the Sailors for their first-ever ACL tournament, as he said: “I’m privileged and honoured to be able to lead this club in the ACL. It is the most prestigious  tournament in the region, and we are proud that we’re not just representing the Sailors, but also Singapore.

“I’ve played in the ACL as a player and led teams as a coach, so it is a tournament I’m familiar with. But each tournament, with different teams taking part, is a different experience, so I’m not taking anything for granted.”

While there is a buzz around the club ahead of their ACL debut, Do-hoon emphasised the importance of staying grounded, and warned his players to brace themselves for difficult battles ahead.

“It’s going to be tough,” Do-hoon declared. “I want to be realistic, I don’t want to be building any false hopes. 

“For starters, we want to score our first goal of the tournament. Then, we’ll look to win our first points. More importantly, we want to play the Sailors way, and give our all until the final whistle.

“So I need to create the atmosphere, the environment for the players to help us stay focused and be ready for whatever challenges come our way.”

Agreeing, Shin-wook urged his team-mates to seize the moment, and go into every game ready to fight for every ball.

“We have to toughen up, and bring a strong will and aggression to every game,” said the man who captained South Korea just last year. “Our opponents in the group have quality, so we will need to do our best to nullify their strengths. That is something that really made the difference when I was with Jeonbuk, and that is how we won the tournament.

“Every player will need to go into each match as if it’s their last, and be prepared to give more than their 100 per cent. That is the key to success in the ACL.”

Ultimately, though, Do-hoon hopes his charges will be able to emerge from their maiden ACL campaign with their heads held high.

The 51-year-old mused: “There’s every chance that some of our results might be difficult to take, but we’ll just have to stay humble, keep working hard in training, and put out the best performance we can.

“We have to try and play our football, show who we are, and do the club, as well as Singapore football as a whole, proud.

“If we just stay focused and take things step-by-step, I’m sure we can pull off a surprise or two.”


Diego thrills, Maxime flourishes – Sailors march onto the ACL

It was a dangerous test for the Lion City Sailors, coming up against the only unbeaten side in the Singapore Premier League (SPL), less than 48 hours before leaving for their maiden Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League (ACL) campaign. 

But the defending champions showed up in scintillating fashion, convincingly beating Tanjong Pagar United 6-1 on Saturday night (9 April) at the Jalan Besar Stadium. 

Brazilian playmaker Diego Lopes at his mesmerising best as he set the Sailors on their way with a brace in the opening half-hour, before Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne came on at half time to chalk up two assists and his first-ever goal for the club. Shahdan Sulaiman, Kim Shin-wook and Hafiz Nor were the other scorers on a night to remember for the Sailors fans. 

Fans were treated to a captivating display by Diego who was a constant thorn in the Jaguars backline with his trickery and close control, and at times seemed unplayable. The 27-year-old has never felt more physically fit since he arrived in January 2021 and he believes he will get even better, in what appears perfect timing for the Sailors who depart for Buriram, Thailand, to face Asia’s best on Monday.  

“I’ve been working hard on my physical condition, putting in sprints after training and doing gym with (Sailors’ Head of Performance) Mario (Jovanovic) for upper body strengthening. I also started changing my diet last season with the help of a nutritionist arranged for by the club,” said the former Rio Ave man, who has now started the last five games after initial difficulties in holding down a first eleven spot under Kim Do-hoon. 

“Now I’m beginning to see the results – I’m stronger and fitter this season. The help from our medical department and trust by Coach also gives me a lot of confidence, so you can see I’m enjoying myself a lot more on the pitch.”

Just eight minutes in, Diego made his mark in the top-of-the-table clash by ghosting in to meet Iqram Rifqi’s deep cross and arch a brilliant header beyond Zharfan Rohaizad. 

“This was one of my best matches, but the whole team played well, and I think it comes down to the hard work that we all have been putting in training sessions,” added Diego.

“This positive result will only encourage us as we go on to play in the ACL.”

This was the final game before embarking on their ACL adventure, but the Sailors showed that there is no letting up in terms of desire and intensity, with M. Anumanthan shutting down the threat of Jaguars’ influential playmaker Mirko Šugić, and the Sailors winning the majority of second balls. 

Kim’s men would double their advantage in the 28th minute through a brilliant team move from back to front, with Diego striding onto Gabriel Quak’s slide-rule pass before firing in between Daniel Bennett’s legs into the bottom left corner. 

The Brazilian continued to pull the strings from the middle of the park and it was his visionary ball over the top that led to Shahdan slotting home the Sailors’ third five minutes later. 

The Sailors were relentless and could have gotten more goals before half time, but Diego was agonisingly denied a hat-trick when his attempt to hook the ball over Zharfan was hacked off the line before Anaqi Ismit struck the bar. 

Maxime then came on for Anaqi at the break and he would make an instant impact 40 seconds after coming on. The Belgian got onto the end of Tajeli Salamat’s low cross before squaring across goal for Shin-wook to make it four from close range. 

The Sailors’ defence was finally breached in the 71st minute – conceding their first goal after 296 minutes of football – when Pedro Henrique inadvertently diverted Rusyadi Salime’s free-kick past Izwan Mahbud. 

However, the four-goal advantage was restored almost immediately with Hafiz applying the finishing touch on another excellent Maxime cross – this just nine minutes after the Singapore international came on for Gabriel. 

Maxime put the icing on the Sailors’ cake in the final minute of regulation time, feinting past two Jaguars defenders before producing a fanciful finish into an empty net for his maiden goal for the club. 

It was a result and display to savour, with Head Coach Kim expressing utmost satisfaction as the Sailors now lead the table by four points. 

“We did concede a goal and that was a bit disappointing, but we were close to perfect in this match. We displayed our football and were on top. We’re just very happy that we put on a good show for the fans before we fly off to Buriram,” said the former Ulsan Hyundai man. 

“We have to continue this good momentum in the ACL and we want to represent Singapore well in this competition. The key is to recover and adapt well once we’re over there.”


One last push before embarking on ACL quest

Their maiden Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League (ACL) campaign in Buriram, Thailand, is on the horizon, but there is still one last domestic hurdle – a significant one – to overcome. The Lion City Sailors take on high-flying Tanjong Pagar United in a top-of-the-table Singapore Premier League (SPL) clash on Saturday night (9 April). 

One point behind the Sailors, the Jaguars are second in the eight-team SPL standings. They are the only remaining unbeaten side this season with three wins and three draws, and their 16 goals is the most of any team in the league. 

Sailors’ goalkeeper Hassan Sunny knows that his side needs to bring their A-game to dish out a first league defeat for the visitors in 2022. 

“Tanjong Pagar is the most in-form team right now and they will take the fight to us – just like the other sides that we’ve faced. We’ve to match their desire and aggression to get the three points that we need,” said the Singapore national custodian. 

Coming off the back of an unconvincing but important 1-0 victory over Young Lions on Wednesday (6 April), Hassan knows there is a need for the Sailors to improve and put in a more cohesive display in this coming match.

“We knew this – that every team will go out there to try and beat us this season – and that clearly showed against the Young Lions. We were second-best for 60 minutes and struggled towards the end of the game. The onus is on us to adjust what went wrong; we need to make fewer mistakes and work on improving certain aspects of our game against Tanjong Pagar,” said the 38-year-old. 

But there has been some improvement in key areas. Hassan and the team are on a good streak – they have kept three clean sheets in their last four outings and achieved back-to-back shutouts for the first time since November 2020. Coupled with his appearance for the Lions in a 2-0 win over Philippines in the recent FAS Tri-Nations Series, Hassan has personally gone three straight games without conceding a goal. 

The veteran, who made his professional debut in 2003, understands the value of a clean sheet and is keen to attribute the positive run to the improving Sailors’ defensive unit. 

“I can’t do everything by myself. I count myself fortunate to have a good pair of centre-backs with Hariss (Harun) and Pedro (Henrique) in front of me, they give us a lot of confidence at the back,” said Hassan. “It’s satisfying of course because sometimes we can play well for 90 minutes, but if we lose that bit of concentration in injury time, then the clean sheet is gone. 

“For myself, it is really important to keep clean sheets and maintain my level of performance. I’ve said before: at my age if I don’t perform, people are going to say it’s time for me to retire. So I have to go out there and prove myself consistently.”

The Tanjong Pagar game sets up an interesting reunion with a familiar face in Aqhari Abdullah – who left for the Jaguars after being part of the Sailors’ title-winning squad in 2021 – and Hassan is pleased to see the 30-year-old enjoying a new lease of life with his new employers. 

“We all know Apek’s professionalism as a player – he doesn’t complain much even during hard training sessions. To be honest, I’m disappointed not to have him around this season, but at the same time it’s just really nice to see him happy and enjoying his football again,” he said. 

This is the final game before the Sailors fly off for the ACL, and Hassan is hopeful of seeing a healthy crowd turn up at Jalan Besar to be the Sailors’ 12th man. 

“I know some fans will be flying to Thailand, but some of them will be staying home and probably catching us on TV. Hopefully every one of them will come down to pack the stadium and give us the chance for us to give the fans something to cheer about before we travel.”


Not in top gear, but enough to climb to the top

It was not the most fluent of displays by the defending Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions, but the Lion City Sailors did enough to grind out a crucial 1-0 win over Young Lions on Wednesday night (6 April) at the Jalan Besar Stadium. 

The result sees Kim Do-hoon’s men finish Matchweek 7 top of the eight-team SPL standings for the first time since the opening weekend of the season, following Tanjong Pagar United’s 3-3 draw with Tampines Rovers in a concurrent match at Our Tampines Hub. 

Gabriel Quak’s 15th minute goal proved to be the decider, but Shahdan Sulaiman acknowledged the need to produce a more cohesive display in the upcoming matches.

“Credit goes to the Young Lions – they stuck to their game plan and they knew how they wanted to play to stop us,” said the 33-year-old midfield lynchpin.

“We didn’t play as well as we wanted to – our game management could have been better and leading by that solitary goal for so long created pressure for ourselves. We have to look at ourselves and ensure that we’re not in this position again.”

Even though the Sailors did not hit top gear, there were positives to be drawn. This was the Sailors’ third clean sheet in their last four outings – back-to-back shutouts for the first time since November 2020 – showcasing the improved defensive solidarity and overall compactness.

Three-time SPL winner Shahdan knows better than most the importance of grinding out victories in a long league season. 

“But we came away with the three points and we’re top of the table now, and that’s a good place to be. For us, the focus is on getting as many points as we can before we fly off for the ACL (Asian Football Confederation Champions League),” he noted. 

Head Coach Kim made just one change to the lineup that started the 4-0 thrashing of Balestier Khalsa five days ago, with Hafiz Nor coming in for Maxime Lestienne on the left flank. 

The Sailors settled into their rhythm early and almost scored after just four minutes, with Shahdan playing a quick one-two with Kim Shin-wook after winning the ball in the attacking third, but saw his resulting shot tipped onto the post by Young Lions goalkeeper Ridhwan Fikri. 

After Hassan Sunny tipped over a Khairin Nadim shot over at the other end, the Sailors went ahead in the 15th minute. Gabriel unleashed a 20-yard daisy-cutter that sneaked into the bottom corner after Song Ui-young’s initial shot was blocked by Jacob Mahler. 

That was 31-year-old Gabriel’s second goal of the season and he proved to be the Young Lions’ slayer again – this was his sixth strike in as many games against them since the Sailors’ inception in 2020. 

The Young Lions did not let their heads go down after conceding, and instead made life difficult for the Sailors with their back five turning in sturdy defensive performances. Nazri Nasir’s boys went close on a few occasions, with Hassan having to get his hands to at least four shots. 

The Sailors were then forced to rejig towards the end of the first half, with Song replaced by Adam Swandi after picking up what appears to be a hamstring injury. That meant Diego Lopes was pushed further up into the no. 10 role, while Hafiz and Gabriel also switched flanks to give some variation in the final third. 

The move brought a bit of an impact with smoother football played after the restart, as Gabriel and Tajeli Salamat going close to doubling the lead. 

Young Lions kept on trying and upped the ante in the final 20 minutes, prompting the Sailors to bring on M. Anumanthan and Amirul Adli to steady the ship. Both men were then involved in a great team move in the 89th minute that should have sealed the three points. 

After Adli had won the ball high up, Anu exchanged passes with Shin-wook before squaring across goal for Diego – who fired against the post from six yards out. 

The Sailors had to keep their heads late on and have Hassan to thank for as he tipped Jacob’s half-volley around the post a minute into injury time to preserve the points for the champions. 

Coach Kim’s immediate attention turned to the top-of-the-table clash against Tanjong Pagar United this coming Saturday (April 9) and is hopeful that his players recover well for another game in quick succession. 

“All teams are facing this issue so this is not an excuse, but it wasn’t easy as this was the first game in the Ramadan period, and we have a tight schedule,” said the former Ulsan Hyundai man. 

“The key now is for the boys to get some good rest because the next game will be very challenging. We’ve to take the confidence from this win and go into the game being very well-prepared.”


I’m loving it: Adam Swandi

He is smiling more these days, and there is little wonder why. 

After dragging himself out from under low hanging dark clouds of injury setbacks in the last couple of years, Adam Swandi has fought his way back into firm contention for a first-team spot at the Lion City Sailors.

And he is loving it. 

It may still be early days in the 2022 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season, but as the Sailors line up against Adam’s former employers, Young Lions on Wednesday (6 April) at the Jalan Besar Stadium, it seems that the 26-year-old is finally stepping into the light. 

He has already made more starts this campaign than in 2020 and 2021 combined – three, to be exact, including the AIA Community Shield, and has also come off the bench on two other occasions. 

Adam was a starter for the Singapore national team in the Lions’ memorable 2-1 Causeway Derby win over Malaysia in the Football Association of Singapore Tri-Nations Series in March, and things are looking up, with his fiery renaissance sparked by a positional change. 

Mainly deployed as a winger since his professional debut in 2015, Adam has been reinvented as a central midfielder and is enjoying life in the Sailors’ engine room. 

“It’s not easy, it’s really different from what I’ve been doing before, so I’m fortunate that I have Shahdan (Sulaiman) alongside me. He continues to give me wonderful guidance from his years of experience,” said Adam. 

“It also helps that we have Hariss (Harun) providing stability from the back. I’m really grateful to be getting quite a number of minutes this season, but of course there’s still a lot of room for improvement.”

It has been a long and arduous road back for Adam, whose horrific anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury in July 2019 saw him out of action for 15 months. He had to be content with 12 substitute appearances on his comeback in 2020 and found it hard to break into the first team under Sailors’ former Head Coach Aurelio Vidmar last season.

Adam would get his first start in over two years in July 2021 during Kim Do-hoon’s first match in charge of the Sailors, but lasted just 14 minutes – he tore his hamstring and missed the next four matches as a result. These multiple setbacks only served to make Adam dig deeper, and looking internally, he found steel, a firm resolve reinforced by the trust given by a renowned tactician – Head Coach Kim. 

“As soon as he came, he made it clear that he saw me as a player who can grow into this central midfield position, in terms of controlling the game and its technical aspects. All I need to do is to learn and do as much as I can in this new role for the team,” said Adam. 

“I’ve been working my socks off in training in order so I can more regularly and I’m happy that he recognises the efforts that I’ve put in. I just have to keep doing my best and play well to repay his faith in me.”

The Sailors have had a mixed start to 2022, but the two-week international break looked to have served the team a world of good. Kim’s charges delivered their most convincing display of the year thus far in a 4-0 thrashing of Balestier Khalsa last Friday (1 April). 

Now second in the eight-team standings, a solitary point behind league leaders Tanjong Pagar United  with 10 points from five matches, the Sailors are looking to keep up the pressure when they take on bottom-placed Young Lions at Jalan Besar. 

This is the Sailors’ penultimate SPL fixture – they will face Tanjong Pagar United on 9 April – before flying off to Buriram, Thailand, for their maiden Asian Football Confederation (ACL) Champions League (ACL) campaign, Adam wants his teammates to grab the remaining opportunities to impress and give Kim some food for thought ahead of the matches against Asia’s big boys. 

“Coach Kim has made it clear that we’ll need every single player to play our part in what will be a long season. Everyone’s been working really hard to show that they deserve the chance to play, and I’m sure whoever is chosen will do a good job for the team,” he said. 

“Young Lions are not a team to be taken lightly, they’ve got quality players like Joel Chew and Shah Shahiran. They may lack that experience, but have drive and boundless energy that makes them competitive in matches. This is a game where our experience will be vital for us.”

The Sailors’ busy April schedule coincides with the annual Ramadan period during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, a time that will test the team’s resolve, but Adam believes the Sailors have what it takes to come through. 

“It’s not easy to play in the Ramadan period, but we’ve long learnt how to cope,” said Adam. 

“We will manage things and go out there and play our best for the team. We’ve a big enough squad fighting for places, and that will definitely come in handy for us.” 


Duty first, with dreams still burning brightly

It is the duty of every Singaporean son, and a vital facet of the nation and our nationhood. 

Embracing the importance of National Service (NS), both to the country and its citizens, the Lion City Sailors Football Academy have taken a somewhat unusual approach to ensure that the national cause and football dreams continue to burn brightly, side-by-side – its Early Enlistment Bond. 

The bond that was launched in December 2020 will see trainees enlist after completing secondary education, under Singapore’s Voluntary Early Enlistment Scheme. 

The aim: for young footballers in the Academy’s scholarship programme to fully immerse themselves in the rite of passage for Singaporean males before turning their full attention towards pursuing lofty football dreams. 

It is an approach that aspiring professionals Yasir Nizamudin, Marcus Mosses and Uvayn Kumar have embraced, as they enlisted as full-time National Servicemen (NSF) on Monday (28 March). 

The trio who were all born in 2005, have taken up the Academy’s Early Enlistment Bond and have moved to enlist immediately after completing secondary school to commit to their duty as Singaporeans for the next two years. 

The Academy has put in place personal training programmes aimed at ensuring their enlisted trainees maintain a level of physical conditioning that will ease their eventual return to the elite level of the sport, while staying engaged with the various NS units to monitor the progress of these NSF-athletes. 

When they return to football, they are assured two-year professional contracts with the club, and will train for and compete in competitions stipulated by the club, including the Singapore Football League, as they knock on the door of the Sailors’ first team – all this while they continue tertiary studies sponsored by the Sailors.  

These trainees may also be sent abroad for training stints and professional trials.

The trio are the second batch of the Academy’s elite trainees to do so under the programme, and they took time out to discuss their big decision before they enlisted on 28 March.

“Actually my mum would have preferred me to go to a junior college (JC) first because she’s worried I would lose interest in studies after NS, but I convinced her that I will continue to pursue academics after my ORD (operationally-ready date),” said Yasir, who graduated from Victoria School with an L1R5 (first language and five relevant subjects) score of 12 in his O-levels, a score that would qualify him for a local JC.

“No matter which pathway I take, I’m certain I’ll eventually still study and get a degree because it’s clear how important qualifications are in our country.  

“Coach (and Academy Technical Director) Luka Lalić spoke to my parents and me, and that’s when we realised that if I opt for early enlistment, I will have more time and focus to grab football opportunities that come my way later,” he added. 

In a similar vein, Marcus and Uvayn chose early enlistment instead of entering the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) after completing their N-levels as originally planned. 

“The main goal of doing this is so that I can fully focus on my football from when I’m 19 years old onwards. My parents were initially reluctant, to be honest, but when I explained how it would help me, they readily gave me their fullest support,” explained Uvayn.

“At age 21 or 22 where people are starting to enlist, we’ve already done our duty to the nation. It frees us to take overseas opportunities with both hands and fully commit to football,” added Marcus.

But taking the road less travelled comes with its own challenges – and fears. 

“Coach (and Academy General Manager) Tan Li Yu spoke with us and shared how the previous batch of boys are managing things. There will always be that element of fear going into a new environment, but we’re also excited and keeping an open mind to learn new things while we’re in NS,” said Yasir, a central midfielder. 

“There is a common gripe that NS hampers the development of a professional sportsman. But we believe there can be several positive effects too. For example, these two years of NS can help the boys mature, go from boys to men as it were, as well as instil more discipline in them,” said Academy General Manager, Li Yu. 

Yasir, Marcus and Uvayn have grown as young footballers at the Academy, and are determined to make sure that all the hard work put into football will continue – even if NS takes prime spot in the next two years. 

“Every Singaporean male will have to go through NS, and I don’t think it should be an excuse for our football development to stop. With the support of the club – along with our own discipline and motivation – we can use the time we have outside of our duties to practice and maintain our levels – and maybe even improve,” said Yasir.  

“The coaches at the Academy have cultivated the mindset of continuous improvement in us, and I intend to lean on this while I’m doing my duty to Singapore.” 

Marcus, a left-footed centre-back, scouted from the ActiveSG academy, agreed. He said: “I’ve been at the Academy for only slightly more than a year (since February 2021), but the support that we’ve received in terms of training, development, and even allowances, has been tremendous.

“We don’t take things for granted. I give it my all every single day in training and put on my best performance because I want to benefit and learn from our coaches who come from the best academies in Europe.  

“This is the same approach I believe Yasir, Uvayn and I will take with us when we enlist.” 

Said Li Yu: “We have taken this approach, in alignment with the existing National Service system, to give the Academy’s best talents the best possible chance of pursuing a career in football abroad.”

“We are very clear to these players: during these two years of full time NS, they are soldiers first and footballers second. It’s a duty to our nation they must fulfil, before going full steam ahead in football when they are done.”


Wookie hat-trick and several positives in Balestier drubbing

A first-ever Singapore Premier League (SPL) hat-trick for Kim Shin-wook, an assist each for Maxime Lestienne and Gabriel Quak on their first starts of the season, and a second clean sheet in three outings.

There were several plus points as the Lion City Sailors romped to a convincing 4-0 victory over Balestier Khalsa at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday night (1 April), kick-starting what is lined up to be an important month for the defending SPL champions. The Sailors will play nine matches across two competitions over just 28 days.

Friday’s win was undoubtedly the Sailors’ most complete display of 2022 so far. And while Head Coach Kim Do-hoon derived much satisfaction from the performance, he immediately spotted a key issue to address. 

“It was good to see how the players connected with each other and played as a team, but it’s still disappointing that the number of goals didn’t tally with the chances created. A lot of hard work went into creating those chances, so we have to be more clinical – we have to learn to kill off games to make life a lot easier for us,” said the former Ulsan Hyundai man, of the 21 shots that his charges took in the match.

“The most pleasing thing was to see how we were able to keep the ball and move it around – we could break their organisation by making their players go out of positions to press us and create space for us to exploit. That’s something we worked on a lot during training, so it’s good to see it coming off in the game.” 

With the loosening of pandemic restrictions and local rapper Akeem Jahat in the house to provide half-time entertainment, the atmosphere was buzzing amongst the Sailors faithful, especially when the team’s lineup was announced before the game. 

Nur Adam Abdullah, Gabriel and Maxime were handed their first starts of 2022, while Shin-wook and Pedro Henrique were restored to the starting eleven – with the Brazilian returning from a two-match suspension – as all four Sailors foreign players started a match for the first time this season. 

Four players who starred in Singapore’s successful FAS Tri-Nations Series campaign also made the lineup, including Song Ui-young who was deployed in the no. 10 role that saw him shine for the Lions. 

The Sailors imposed themselves from the get-go and drew first blood after just seven minutes, with Shin-wook shrewdly freeing himself from Balestier’s Serbian defender Ensar Brunčević before nodding home Shahdan Sulaiman’s outswinging corner. 

The early goal gave the champions added impetus as they began to dictate the tempo and become more fluid in possession.

After Hassan Sunny thwarted a couple of Balestier attempts, the Sailors went on to double their advantage on 27 minutes. Maxime’s exquisite left-wing cross took out the entire Tigers defence, with Song proceeding to slot underneath Hairul Syirhan for his first goal of the season. 

Kim’s men were relentless and duly made it three on the half-hour mark. Gabriel – who switched flanks with Maxime just moments earlier – strode onto an excellent Hariss Harun ball over the top, before squaring across for Shin-wook to convert from six yards out. 

Victory was then wrapped up 10 minutes into the second half, with the 1.98m “Wookie” steering in another header off Diego Lopes’ pinpoint cross – after some great interchange of passes between Maxime and Gabriel – to complete his first Sailors hat-trick. 

The Sailors continued to carve out openings, but were unable to add further goals with Maxime going agonisingly close on a few occasions.

The tempo was then disrupted by a flurry of substitutions, but the rejigged Sailors kept their heads in the game as Hariss foiled Kuraba Kondo from going clean through in the dying stages to preserve another valuable clean sheet for the home side. 

An accomplished display was a firm indication that things are coming together for the Sailors. The defending champions go top of the table with 10 points from five matches – although Tanjong Pagar United could reclaim the summit if they beat Young Lions on Saturday (2 Apr). But Kim wants his charges to keep their feet on the ground as they play another two SPL games before embarking on their maiden AFC Champions League campaign in mid-April. 

“I’ve said a few times before that I was only expecting us to have a full team ready around April, and this performance shows we’re on track. But there is still a lot of room for improvement and I know we can do even better than this,” said the 51-year-old. 

“I just want to say a big thank you to all the fans that came down – we’re happy to be able to put up a good show for them – and I hope they continue to give us that extra motivation for our challenges ahead.”