Ruthless Sailors demolish Balestier in Singapore Cup opener

They were held to a 3-3 draw by Balestier Khalsa in their Singapore Cup opener in October last year, but there was no repeat of that on Monday (25 September) as the Lion City Sailors comfortably dispatched the Tigers 7-0 at Bishan Stadium to get their 2023 Singapore Cup Group B campaign up and running.

Richairo Živković and Diego Lopes bagged a hat-trick each, while Adam Swandi also got his name on the scoresheet as the Sailors bounced back in style following their narrow Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) opening day 2-1 defeat to Bangkok United last Wednesday (20 Sept). 

The result meant the Sailors top Group B after the first matchday, ahead of second-placed Tanjong Pagar who defeated Hougang United 2-1 in the other group game. 

The absence of top scorer Maxime Lestienne through suspension seemed to matter little to the Sailors. It took them just three minutes to get their noses in front, with Diego setting up Richi to fire past Balestier custodian Hairul Syirhan from a tight angle.

The men in blue went two goals up on 11 minutes after Richi lashed home into the bottom corner after being teed up by Shawal Anuar. 

Diego then got his first of the night with a neatly-curled effort in the 19th minute, before getting his second with an easy finish off a rebound after Hafiz Nor’s shot was parried into his path six minutes later. 

Richi would complete his first-half hat-trick in the 36th minute, latching onto another Diego pass before calmly slotting it into the far corner to make it 5-0.

It was his first hat-trick in Sailors colours – one that the Curaçaon forward was pleased with.

“It’s a nice feeling and I personally felt that I had a great game today. I liked how the team played, putting pressure on Balestier from the get-go and dominating the game throughout,” said the 27-year-old, who has already netted a total of nine goals in all competitions since joining in the mid-season transfer window. 

The Sailors continued from where they left off, extending their advantage less than a minute after the game resumed for the second half.

Shawal’s cross was chested down by Richi into the path of Diego, whose firm drive found the back of the net for the goal that gave him his second Sailors hat-trick. 

The Brazilian’s first came in a 8-0 thumping of Geylang International in April 2021.

With an eye on their ACL away clash against Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC on Wednesday (4 October), Sailors Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković rang the changes shortly thereafter. 

In came the likes of midfielder Adam shortly after the hour mark, as well as Harith Kanadi who replaced Chris van Huizen at left-back in the 71st minute for what was his Sailors debut.  

“We did everything we could to finish the tie as soon as possible and I was pleased to be able to make some changes ahead of a tougher opponent next week,” noted Ranko.

Adam grabbed the game’s final goal with 15 minutes remaining, with an unstoppable shot that arrowed into the bottom corner for his fourth goal in all competitions this year. 

Speaking after the game, Ranko heaped praise on his charges for a job well done.

“I was happy with the way we played, especially with how we scored in the first-half. We were effective and the game was done and dusted by then,” said the Serb. 

“I don’t like to single out anyone for praise as it will be unfair to the rest of the team. I must say that the players, even those who started on the bench, put in a good shift when they came in which gives me a good headache as a coach.” 

Ranko was meanwhile, happy with what he saw from goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud, who kept a clean sheet on his first Sailors start since November 2022. 

“I was very satisfied with Izwan’s performance today and it’s nice to see him getting back to play at this level,” Ranko said of the 33-year-old, who returned after a lengthy layoff from an anterior cruciate ligament injury.

“With Izwan and Zharfan (Rohaizad), I’m delighted to have two quality goalkeepers at my disposal and it’s going to be a tough challenge, especially for my goalkeeper coaches.” 

The Sailors will next face Kitchee at the Hong Kong Stadium, before taking on Tanjong Pagar United in their second Singapore Cup Group B match on 21 October.


Pashia: Expectations are high, but we must redeem ourselves

Just five days after the team’s opening Group F fixture in the 2023/24 Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL), the Lion City Sailors will kick off their 2023 Singapore Cup campaign this Monday (25 September) with their first Group B fixture against Balestier Khalsa at Bishan Stadium. 

While the 2-1 battling loss to Thai League 1 leaders Bangkok United was disappointing, the Sailors have little time to wallow. 

They suffered a disappointing Singapore Cup debut last year, failing to progress out of the group stages. A focused performance will provide the Sailors the best chance at redemption, to claim the other senior domestic trophy still missing from the trophy cabinet at Mattar Road.

“It wasn’t the result that we wanted last year, the fans expected us to do better. They demand a lot from us and that’s a good pressure, it keeps us driving forward,” said Haiqal Pashia, who was part of the Sailors’ Class of 2022.

In stark contrast, last year’s cup campaign was most definitely one to remember for Lionel Tan. The defender was part of the Hougang United side that went the distance and lifted the trophy, claiming the first major trophy in Cheetahs history. 

Now with the Sailors, the 26-year-old hopes that he can forge similar memories with the team, and is confident that a win in the opening match against Bishan neighbours, Balestier, will be invaluable to the team’s cup campaign. 

“We have to fight for this Singapore Cup and get silverware, that’s important for us to boost the team’s morale,” he said. 

“I believe starting on the right foot in the first game will put us in an ideal position to try and do that.”

For Pashia, the Singapore Cup is an important opportunity to bring home some silverware in the 2023 season.

“We need to redeem ourselves. Everyone expects us, especially when they hear the name ‘Sailors’, they expect us to take this cup home,” said the 24-year-old. 

While their memories of the 2022 campaign may be strikingly different, both teammates are united in their belief on two aspects: the ultimate goal is to help the team win the competition, and that their first challenge on Monday against Balestier, will not be a walk in the park. 

The Sailors may have won all three league encounters against the Tigers in 2023, but Balestier have proven to be formidable opponents, breaking down defences across the league with their attacking prowess as they powered to an impressive fourth-place finish in the SPL. 

The Sailors were also not spared from Balestier’s offensive capabilities, conceding a staggering six goals in the Round 2 and 3 fixtures against the Tigers, which ended in 5-4 and 5-2 victories respectively. 

But the Sailors remain confident of starting their Singapore Cup campaign with three points.

“Balestier is not an easy team, especially (with) their attacking ability, they can give us some problems at the back, but I think we are confident that we can manage that,” said Pashia.

“We just have to be focused from the beginning and capitalise on our chances.”

These thoughts were echoed by Lionel, who is also confident that the Sailors have the tools needed to kick off their cup campaign with an important victory. 

“I think we’ll put up a very good fight, and we’ll be there with our best to get the three points.”


Sailors Academy pride Nathan Mao relishing opportunity to shine on Asia’s biggest stage

Five minutes into injury time in the Lion City Sailors’ final Singapore Premier League (SPL) fixture against Geylang International, he made his presence felt. 

With a trivela pass that is fast becoming his trademark, he teed up Haiqal Pashia for the game-clinching goal in the 3-1 win, and with that became what is believed to be the youngest player to pick up an assist in the SPL

Nathan Mao is just 15 years old and 181 days old but is already one of the shining lights of the Sailors Academy – he made history earlier in March by becoming the SPL’s youngest-ever debutant at 15 years and 5 days old and now has also been included in the Sailors’ squad for the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) campaign. 

Nathan believes that a key factor behind his rapid rise is the fact that he has been embedded in the Sailors setup since its 2020 inception.

“When I first joined the academy, I never thought that one day I could become the SPL’s youngest-ever debutant or go anywhere near achieving such a record. A lot of my progress is down to the good work of the coaches here. Every year, they bring in even more quality coaches to guide and help the boys here,” he said. 

“Over in this Academy, there’s really a proper pathway for Academy trainees to make the step up and be integrated into the first team – making sure we’re ready for professional football and not feel too much pressure at the same time.” 

The supportive platform has empowered him to propel himself towards his footballing dreams, and now put him on the cusp of playing against some of Asia’s biggest teams in the ACL. 

In April 2022, he was watching the likes of Diego Lopes and Maxime Lestienne weaving their magic on the continental stage and feeling inspired by their exploits on the Sailors’ maiden voyage into the continent. Little did he know that just over a year later, he would be part of the Sailors’ first-team squad that was headed for its second ACL adventure. 

“It means a lot to me to be representing the Sailors first team in an international competition at this age. I’m aware that not a lot of people of my age would have the chance or experience to play in such a reputable competition, so I’m not taking this for granted,” said Nathan. 

“I’m excited at possibly playing against top-tier teams and to push myself and see where I’m at as compared to these overseas players.”

He made Head Coach Aleksandar Rankovic’s Matchday 1 squad in the 2-1 defeat to Thailand’s Bangkok United and became the youngest player to be named in an ACL matchday squad since 2012 – at 15 years and 178 days old, surpassing Suphanat Mueanta (15y 203d for Buriram v Jeju United in Feb 2018) according to Opta Sports. 

That has added even more fuel to his fiery drive. 

“I’m very motivated and working very hard to show Coach what I can do. Hopefully I’ll get to play some minutes in the upcoming games and I’m going to give my all whenever I get onto the pitch,” he said. 

He broke into the Sailors first team this season and already has three appearances under his belt in a 2023 season that has been a breakthrough year for Nathan. But he is also under no illusions that this upward trajectory will continue indefinitely into the future.

“It’s really cool to be able to share a dressing room with great players like Diego and Max, but I’m not thinking that I’ve already made it. If you look at it in perspective, this is probably just the start of my career,” he said. 

Nathan acknowledges – somewhat reluctantly – that he is now a beacon for the Sailors Academy and is aware that his exploits will inspire the next generation of trainees, and could well shape decisions that will impact their development. 

“I know what’s at stake whenever I go onto the pitch and I’m relishing this responsibility to make the Academy proud. But I also know it’s not just about me – there are many other players with potential in this Academy. 

“I’m sharing my little experiences with the first team to help them. At the same time, they’re also hungry and inspired to make the step up and show their ability at a higher level.

“That’s a hunger that I share – I just want to keep on pushing to get better every single year.”


Several positives in Bangkok United defeat: Ranko

“We didn’t deserve to lose.”

That was the candid assessment of Lion City Sailors Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković after a 2-1 defeat to Bangkok United in their Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) 2023/24 Group F opener. 

It was a sentiment that seemed to be shared by many of the 2,927 spectators at Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday night (20 September). After all, the Sailors had more than given the visitors a run for their money – on a night of continental football graced by the presence of Singapore’s ninth Head of State, President Tharman Shanmugaratnam – and could have taken all three points on another day.

But Ranko’s men paid the price for two lapses in concentration: one from a set-piece, and another from a failure to track the running man in midfield.

“We did our best today, and of course we are sad about the result. We cannot concede easy goals, especially from set-pieces,” Sailors midfielder Diego Lopes said. “In this competition, against the level of players we faced today, you must be 100 percent focused throughout the 90 minutes.

“But overall, I think we did well, and we had several good chances to score. We cannot beat ourselves up over the loss. We’ll just have to take this defeat as a learning experience, and go again in the next game.”

Starting with five at the back, the Sailors’ game plan was clear from the first whistle: be defensively disciplined, keep their tactical shape, and pick their opportunities to hit Bangkok United on the transition.

It worked a treat, as even though Bangkok United dominated possession in the opening stages of the game, they were unable to break through the resolute Sailors’ defensive shape, with goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad barely having anything to do for long periods.

Indeed, it was the home team that appeared more threatening when going forward. 

In the 17th minute, striker Richairo Živković created the first significant chance of the game with a curled effort, forcing Bangkok United goalkeeper Patiwat Khammai to make an exceptional fingertip save.

Just two minutes later, Diego found an opening behind the Bangkok United defence from a throw-in, but couldn’t find the target with his shot from a tight angle.

Diego finally broke the deadlock five minutes later, as he pounced on a loose ball in the box and rifled home a first-time half-volley that nestled into the bottom corner of the net for his second-ever ACL goal. 

The first one came back in the Sailors’ maiden ACL voyage when the Sailors remarkably defeated K League 1 side Daegu FC 3–0 last April. 

While the Sailors were able to comfortably keep Bangkok United at bay for the remainder of the half, the Thai outfit emerged from the break with renewed intent, and looked more threatening from the outset.

Their endeavour eventually paid off in the 52nd minute when a well-delivered corner to the back post found captain Everton, who rose highest to head home the equaliser.

Galvanised by the goal, Bangkok United continued to push forward in search of a second goal.

It took all of 11 minutes for them to find it, as midfielder Thitiphan Puangchan received the ball – with time and space – at the edge of the box, before firing an unstoppable shot into the top corner of the net.

Now needing a goal to rescue something from the game, the Sailors adopted a more attacking approach, and began to put Bangkok United under real pressure.

And the Sailors thought they scored the equaliser in the 71st minute when defender Manuel Herrera López (Súper) headed home from a free-kick. However, the assistant referee flagged Súper for offside – a decision that was upheld following a check by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).

While the Sailors continued to threaten – with substitute Shawal Anuar coming close to scoring on several occasions – the second goal just would not come for the hosts, as Bangkok United held firm to secure their maiden ACL victory.

Despite the defeat, Ranko insisted there were plenty of positives he could take out from the game.

“’We’re all disappointed with the loss, but I’m proud of my boys because they did a tremendous job in this game,” Ranko declared. “Especially in the first-half, we were tight, and didn’t give Bangkok United many chances.

“They (Bangkok United) have many good, experienced players, but we demonstrated our competitiveness and showed everyone what we’re made of.”

Explaining his decision to go with a back-five, rather than to use the more familiar 4-3-3 formation, Ranko said: “In this type of competition you’re going to need an extra man behind to keep things compact, especially when we lose the ball.

“We knew that teams like Bangkok United would have more of the ball, but that was not a problem for us. Just look at the first-half, we had less possession but still managed to score, and could have made it 2-0 or 3-0 if we took our chances.

“Of course, when we went 2-1 down, I changed it back to our standard 4-3-3 formation as we had to take more risk and throw more players up front. Unfortunately, it was not enough to change the result.”

The Sailors will next take on Balestier Khalsa in the Singapore Cup at the Bishan Stadium next Monday evening (25 September), before returning to ACL action with an away game against Kitchee SC in Hong Kong on 4 October.


Bangkok United wary of Sailors challenge

They are one of the in-form teams of the Thai League 1 (T1) so far this season, with three wins and a draw from their first four games.

But while Bangkok United might be flying high domestically – they are currently top of the T1 – Head Coach Totchtawan Sripan is well-aware that his team will encounter a different challenge in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL).

That is why the former Thai international is keen to keep his team grounded as they prepare for their opening ACL match against the Lion City Sailors at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday (20 September).

Totchtawan, who led Bangkok United to the Thai Champions Cup with a 2-0 win over Buriram United last month, said he expects a tough game.

 “Ever since we found out that we would have to play the Sailors, we’ve been working to get information about them,” Totchawan revealed. “We know that they are one of the biggest teams in Singapore, and they have a lot of quality players.

“Maxime (Lestienne) and Richairo (Živković) are very good, high-quality foreign players, and the Sailors also have a lot of Singapore National Team players that we have to look out for. We’ll definitely have to be at our best to get three points against them.”

But the Bangkok Angels are no slouches themselves, and their recent run of good form is no fluke.

Last season’s Thai FA Cup runners-up boasts a strong squad which includes six current Thai internationals in midfielder Thitiphan Puangchan, defenders Peerapat Notchaiya and Nitipong Selanon, wingers Rungrath Poomchantuek and Pokklaw Anan, as well as goalkeeper Patiwat Khammai.

The quality of the team is augmented by Swedish-born Palestinian winger Mahmoud Eid, who has already notched an impressive three assists and three goals this season.

For many of the players, however, this will be their first time playing in the ACL – the last time Bangkok United qualified for the group stages of the competition was in 2007. Known as Bangkok University back then, they finished bottom of their group without a win.

As such, Bangkok United captain Everton believes that the team will be extra motivated to get off to a good start against the Sailors.

“Everyone has been waiting for this moment, and we’re all really excited to play our first match,” the Brazilian centre-back said. “We’ve been training hard and preparing well for this game. The Sailors have very good players, but we have quality in our team as well, so it’ll hopefully be a great game and we’ll come out with the win.”

Incidentally, this match will be the first time that Totchawan is returning to Singapore after 20 years, with the 51-year-old previously turning out for the now-defunct Sembawang Rangers between 1998 to 2003.

Much has changed since, including the re-turfing of the Jalan Besar Stadium from natural grass into an artificial pitch.

Admitting that it may take some time for his players to get used to playing on artificial turf, Totchawan said: “We’ve been playing on natural grass, and we don’t have much time to get used to an artificial pitch.

“But my coaching staff has been giving information about how it’s like playing on artificial grass, and we might make certain tactical adjustments (to cope), but hopefully we can adapt to the pitch quickly.”

Everton added that the artificial turf will likely give the Sailors an advantage, as he explained: “They’re used to playing on these sorts of pitches, but not us. I previously played one tournament in Brazil (on artificial grass), so I’ve been telling the rest of the players that when you play on such a pitch, you cannot wait for the ball, because its movement can be unpredictable, and it’s easy to make mistakes if you’re not careful.”

Nonetheless, while the Sailors might have the home ground advantage, Totchawan has called on his players to step up on Wednesday and seize the opportunity to make both club and country proud.

“As Bangkok United, we not only represent the club, but also our country,” Totchawan said. “So, we’ll do our best and make it a historic day for the club by winning our first ACL game. We want to make everyone back home proud, and get our ACL campaign off to the best start.”


Focus, spirit, belief – Sailors back themselves to go toe-to-toe with the best in ACL

It was arguably one of the shock results of the group stages of last year’s Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL), and one that Lion City Sailors fans will remember for a long time.

But while the Sailors’ 3-0 win over South Korean side Daegu FC was a proud and historic day for the club, it also alerted the rest of Asia to the potential threat that the Singapore outfit posed.

According to Sailors attacker Maxime Lestienne, their creditable displays in their maiden ACL voyage last season – which saw them finish the group stage with seven points from six games – will discourage teams from underestimating them this year.

“Last year, we were considered the minnows of the competition, but I think we did a good job and surprised a few teams,” said the former PSV Eindhoven man. “But this year, other teams know more about us, so they’ll be able to better prepare for our game, which will definitely make it more difficult.”

 The Sailors have been drawn in Group F for the 2023/24 ACL campaign, alongside Thai outfit Bangkok United – who they will face in their opening match this Wednesday (20 Sept) – Hong Kong Premier League side Kitchee SC, and two-time ACL champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.

While Jeonbuk are considered favourites to top the group, Maxime believes that the Sailors have nothing to fear when they eventually face the Korean heavyweights.

“People are all talking about Jeonbuk as the favourites, but I don’t think there are any (favourites) in the group,” Maxime declared. “In football, you cannot be afraid of any team. Nothing is impossible – we have to go out there and play our football, follow our coach’s (Aleksandar Ranković) instructions, show our fighting spirit, and most importantly, believe in our quality.”

One player who will certainly add quality to the team is new signing Rui Pires, who joined the club in July after signing from Portuguese side FC Paços de Ferreira.

While 25-year-old Rui featured for the Sailors in the Tiger Cup encounter against Tottenham Hotspur two months ago, he has yet to make his competitive debut for the club.

Fan expectations of Rui are high, especially as the defensive midfielder boasts a wealth of experience at the top-level of football, with appearances in the Portuguese Primera Liga, French Ligue 2, and the UEFA Europa Conference League Qualifiers.

Rui, however, insists that he will thrive despite being under such scrutiny, as he explained: “I put the most pressure on myself every day, in every training session, in every game.

 “This pressure drives me to play well and work hard to improve. I’ve been pushing myself and my teammates in training ever since I joined… I feel ready and motivated to finally make my competitive debut for the Sailors.”

Rui added that he is looking forward to playing against some of the biggest teams in the region.

“Since I joined the club, people have been speaking to me about the ACL and telling me all about the teams in the competition and the impressive stadiums that we’ll be playing in,” Rui revealed.

“We’re all aware that we’ll be going up against very good teams, and we’ll play difficult games in the competition. Every team has a lot of quality players, but so do we. The team holds high ambitions for the ACL, but we’ll approach it one game at a time and give our best effort.”

For Maxime, the goal for the Sailors in the ACL this year is clear: to do one better from last year, and progress from the group stage.

“My personal objective is to qualify for the knockout rounds,” Maxime said. “We have a balanced team with experience and youth, and we’ve learned from our experience last year.

“But ultimately, we have to give our all in every game so that when the group stage comes to an end, we can look back and be proud of what we did and have no regrets.

“In order to achieve our goals, all of us have to pull in the same direction and work hard to contribute to the team, regardless of whether you’re in the starting-11 or coming off from the bench.  We’ll have to keep our focus and help each other on the pitch.”


Sailors close out the SPL season with comeback win over Geylang

On paper, the Lion City Sailors’ final game of the 2023 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season against Geylang International at the Bishan Stadium on Saturday (16 September) appeared to be a dead rubber, at least for the hosts.

After all, the Sailors were already guaranteed to finish second in the league, regardless of the outcome of the match.

But as the famous saying goes, ‘winning is a habit’ – and that is exactly what the Sailors seemed intent on doing, with Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković fielding a strong line-up that included Diego Lopes, Maxime Lestienne, and Hariss Harun.

The game, however, did not quite go according to plan for Ranko’s charges in the first 45 minutes, with the Eagles matching the Sailors for large parts of the half.

Indeed, it was the visiting side that took the lead in the 31st minute when Yushi Yamaya stole in behind the Sailors’ defence to head home from close range.

“I think the obvious reason that we were down one goal is we weren’t at our 100 per cent in the first-half,” Ranko reflected. “The energy that I saw from our last game (a 8-2 victory over Hougang United) was missing, and that is why I made changes for the second half.”

And change Ranko did, as he brought on Lionel Tan and Haiqal Pashia for Maxime and Richairo Živković after the break.

The substitutions injected fresh energy into the Sailors’ play, with Pashia notably shining as a bright spark in the attack.

The 24-year-old came close to scoring the equaliser early in the second half when he flashed a header just wide of the goal.

Pashia went even closer a few minutes later as he beat his marker in the box after being found by Diego, but he could only fire the ball straight at Geylang custodian Hafiz Ahmad.

But the tide had undeniably turned in the Sailors’ favour, and in the 53rd minute, Shawal Anuar rose highest to expertly guide Chris van Huizen’s cross into the net for the equaliser and his 10th goal of the season. 

With the wind in their sails, and egged on by the home support, the Sailors pushed forward relentlessly, and were duly rewarded in the 62nd minute with an outrageous long-range strike from Hami Syahin that left Hafiz grasping at air.

“I’ve been trying long shots the whole season, but they always either go out or are saved. So, I’m really pleased that one finally went in,” mused Hami, who was named the Man-of-the-Match.

With the lead in hand, the Sailors seemed poised to go on and exert control on the game.

But a momentary loss of focus in the 72nd minute saw the Sailors go down to 10 men, as Lionel received his marching orders after being adjudged to have denied a clear goalscoring opportunity.

Rather than letting their heads drop, the Sailors regrouped and remained competitive, putting on a disciplined defensive display while looking to counter.

15-year-old Nathan Mao then came on and gave the Sailors a different element in attack in the final 10 minutes. 

This tactic came close to paying off in the 85th minute when Pashia beat the offside trap, finding himself one-on-one with Hafiz. Unfortunately, his shot narrowly missed the target, striking the post and going out, much to the forward’s frustration.

But Pashia was not to be denied. Five minutes into stoppage time, he was set free down the left by a superb trivela pass from Nathan and, after spotting Hafiz off his line, calmly bent a shot into the back of the net for a well-deserved goal to seal the victory for the Sailors. 

That also meant the 24-year-old scored in successive SPL games for the first time since September 2021.

After the game, Ranko commended his players for the tremendous physical effort they displayed, particularly after they were reduced to 10 men.

“Today, we played with a man less for a good 30 minutes, but you couldn’t really tell which team had a man down,” said Ranko. “That shows the effort they put in, and it’s a testament to all the hard work the players have put in to improving their fitness in training.”

Ranko also believes that the win over Geylang to close out the SPL season on a high will give his side a timely boost, as they now turn their attentions to the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) and Singapore Cup competitions.

“It’s always good to win, it gives us a boost for the matches that are coming up,” Ranko elaborated. “Apart from the first-half today, we’ve played well over the past few games, and I think we now have a good foundation for what’s coming next.”

Hami added: “We’re looking to carry this momentum into the ACL and Singapore Cup. It’s a whole different ball game in the ACL especially, but we’ll go out there to give our best and try to get as many wins as we can.”

The Sailors will next take on Thai outfit Bangkok United in the ACL at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday (20 Sep).



ACL on the horizon, but Sailors remain focused

The final match day of the 2023 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season will see the Lion City Sailors host Geylang International at Bishan Stadium on Saturday (16 September), the last match before the Sailors embark on their second Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League (ACL) voyage.

The Sailors are in Group F alongside two-time ACL winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC, and Bangkok United, the Thai side that will line up at the Jalan Besar Stadium on 20 September in the opening group match.

The Geylang SPL fixture is the first time the Sailors will be in competitive action after a month-long September FIFA International window that saw 10 Sailors called up to a Singapore National Team squad that faced Tajikistan and Chinese Taipei at Bishan. 

Zulqarnaen Suzliman, who endured a two-year wait before finally donning national colours again during the window, was grateful for the opportunity.

He said: “It’s great to be a part of the squad again after so long. I personally believe I have put in the hard work to get there again. Hopefully my form continues for both club and country.”

This “form” that the 25-year-old spoke of was exemplified in the Sailors’ last encounter against Geylang on 7 May. 

While the headlines were all about Maxime Lestienne who fired two free-kicks past goalkeeper Hafiz Ahmad to give the Sailors a 2-1 victory, it was clear that the defensive masterclass put up by Zulqarnaen was equally important in helping the team secure all three points on the night.

Now fresh off back-to-back appearances for the national team in the heartlands of Bishan, Zulqarnaen will return to Bishan Stadium again, this time in the white, blue, and bold of the Sailors. 

From his perspective, the key to earning all three points at the familiar ground is simple and clear.

”It’s all about preparation, Geylang is a good side and we have to be focused for the challenge. The three points is what matters most,” said Zulqarnaen. 

Indeed, Saturday’s challenge is not one that the Sailors can take lightly. 

In previous final-round SPL fixtures, Geylang have suffered big defeats at the hands of Albirex Niigata (S) and Balestier Khalsa, but the Eagles have also managed to record notable victories against the likes of Tampines Rovers and Brunei DPMM. 

Nonetheless, Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković is going into the match brimming with confidence. 

“I’ve watched Geylang a couple of times, we pretty much know how they play and like every game this season, we’re just going to focus on our team,” he said.

 “It’s very important that we win because that will give us a boost going into the Champions League game in the week ahead.” 

The Sailors have already secured second spot in the nine-team SPL standings, and while this fixture against Geylang will have no impact on the Sailors’ SPL season, Zulqarnaen and company are determined to go for the kill and finish the league campaign on a winning note this Saturday. 

“We’re always here to compete and put in 100%, no matter the circumstances. This mindset stays the same – and that is to go out there and win,” he said, simply.

The winning mindset is a facet of football that Ranko wants deeply ingrained in his team. 

“That’s something that we have been working on in the last two months I came here, and of course it’s something that doesn’t come in one day,” said the 45-year-old. 

“But it is something we train for: to go out there fighting to win every match.”


Our Shapes, Our Spirit: Sailors to fly the flag at ACL

Hariss Harun and the rest of the 14 Lion City Sailors who were called up to the various national teams returned to the Sailors Training Centre on Thursday (14 September) and immediately put their heads down, driving their feet towards the club’s second foray into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League (ACL).

There is less than a week to 20 September, the day the Sailors will host Thai side Bangkok United at the Jalan Besar Stadium in their opening Group F ACL encounter, with two-time ACL champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC to come in the months ahead.

And there is little surprise that at Mattar Road, anticipation hangs heavy in the air.

The Sailors will fly the Singapore flag at the continent’s top-tier club competition again after an encouraging maiden voyage in the 2022 ACL, beating K League 1 side Daegu FC and Chinese Super League outfit Shandong Taishan enroute to securing seven points in a creditable campaign.

This time around, the Sailors look to add European pedigree to the Singapore spirit as they play at Asia’s top table.

“I’m obviously really excited because not a lot of people my age would have the chance to experience something like this, so this opportunity makes me really grateful and motivates me to work even harder,” said Nathan Mao, who became the Singapore Premier League’s (SPL) youngest-ever player at 15 years and 5 days old when he came on against Tampines Rovers earlier this year in March.

“I’ve been learning so much by training with the first team day in and day out and the senior players have been patiently guiding me with many tips. Nothing is guaranteed in football and I’m not going to think of how many minutes I’m going to play (in the ACL) – the key for me is to give my 110 percent and set my mentality right to help the team whenever I get the chance to go on the pitch.”

Nathan has a spread of potential “teachers” to learn from.

There is a strong European flavour at the club, with the likes of former Portugal youth captain Rui Pires, ex-Ajax Amsterdam forward Richairo Živković, former Sunderland defender Bailey Wright joining the likes of Maxime Lestienne and Diego Lopes – both of whom have played in some of Europe’s top leagues and impressed in the Sailors’ blue at last year’s ACL campaign.

Maxime, who has been in blistering form this season with 25 goals and 21 assists in the SPL, is adamant that the Sailors can go further in the ACL than any Singapore club has – or has even believed is possible.

“We had a great experience in 2022 and I believe we can qualify for the last 16 this time,” said the 31-year-old Belgian, who had one goal and two assists the previous ACL campaign.

“I know the squad has changed a lot from last season, but there’s still a lot of experience and quality in the team. I don’t want to say we’re going there to create a surprise, because it shouldn’t be a surprise – we have quality and we know what we can do.”

Sailors Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković, who was coaching in the Dutch Eredivisie as recently as this May, shares a similar confidence and has been gradually assembling the various parts in piecing together a plan for his Sailors to do the job out on the pitch.

And the signs are positive.

With the Sailors turning in a creditable performance in July’s Tiger Cup encounter against visiting English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur at the National Stadium, and ending the SPL season with some high-scoring victories over Balestier Khalsa, Tampines and Hougang United, Ranko is excited at what his charges can produce in the ACL.

“The new boys like Bailey, Rui and Richairo arrived not long ago, but they are already very immersed in the team – interacting and communicating inside and outside the pitch. That’s the most important part of creating a team together and it makes my job so much easier – I can focus on more straightforward things like tactics and conditioning,” said the Serbian.

“We’ve players who have played in big matches internationally so there’s no issue for them to make the step up to play in the ACL. I have every reason to believe that we can be very competitive in this campaign.”

Looking beyond the on-paper expectations, Bailey drew inspiration from representing a club and community that he has embraced – and has started to embrace them.

“When I first heard that the shapes on our training kits, jerseys and ACL campaign designs were inspired by the triangles we see on the buildings around our Training Centre, I thought it was very apt, even heartwarming,” said the 31-year-old.

“We are representing Singapore at the competition, and it’s fantastic that we’re literally wearing the shapes and colours of our community and carrying all that on our chests and shoulders when we go into battle and aim to do them proud at the ACL.”

Like Bailey, an inspired Maxime is also braced for battle in the campaign ahead.

“Our players – even the new and young players – know what the club wants and requires from us, so there’s no excuse,” said the former PSV Eindhoven man.

“We know the ACL is a different level of competition, but we’re all ready to show our spirit to compete and show what a Singapore club can do.”

Tickets for the Sailors’ first AFC Champions League 2023/24 Group F game against Bangkok United is now on sale. Snap the tickets up now via


Súper braced for bigger, badder battles in the AFC Champions League

The photo made it look like a line had been crossed. 

The wild surprise on the face of the shell-shocked victim – matched by an equal level of calm in the aggressor – spoke of a visceral moment in a heated battle that was teetering on the verge of explosion.

Looking back at that photo, taken during the Lion City Sailors’ Tiger Cup encounter against Tottenham Hotspur in July, Manuel Herrera López – the aggressor – just laughed. 

“I had a couple of words with him (the victim). I told him: ‘I know you are Harry Kane, but I have to catch you at corners’ and he laughed,” said the Sailors centre-back, affectionately known as Súper. 

The 31-year-old was one of the Sailors’ standout performers of that encounter. He did not give an inch to England star Kane, and the other world-class players in the Spurs ranks in a first half that saw the Sailors lead 1-0 until Kane managed to score from the penalty spot on the stroke of half time to equalise. 

Súper admitted he was particularly pumped up for that match, although fans would have recognised the competitive, no-holds barred energy the Spaniard brings to the team. 

“I had strong motivation because I was playing against such great players. I didn’t know what to expect from that Spurs game, but I felt pretty good about how the team and I played,” he said. 

“I’ve always been a big fighter and someone who’s very demanding on the pitch. My main objectives are to help the team keep a clean sheet and win the game.” 

Súper fought hard to rise through the ranks of the Real Betis youth academy and was even named on the bench for the Betis first team in a La Liga fixture against Real Madrid in 2012. 

Unable to break into the first-team reckoning and keen to prove his abilities, he then played for a few clubs in the lower divisions of Spain before moving to Southeast Asia in 2017 with Philippines side Ceres-Negros. 

He joined a strong side that won three straight Philippines Football League (PFL) titles between 2017 to 2019 and performed creditably on the regional stage. Ceres were crowned ASEAN zone champions in the 2017 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup and competed in three AFC Champions League qualifying playoff campaigns between 2018 to 2020. 

Súper later played in Cambodia with Nagaworld FC for two years before joining the Sailors in March 2023. 

And Súper already feels right at home here in the Lion City, and is yearning to help the club scale new heights. 

“I’m happy with how my career went and I’m always very hungry to show myself at every club that I’m at. I’m enjoying myself a lot here and I have a very good relationship with my teammates,” he said. 

“We’ve a very ambitious setup here with excellent facilities and hungry players. We spend many hours together at the Training Centre – not only field training and going to the gym, but also doing other activities like playing table tennis, and basically joking around with everyone.

“We have a great atmosphere here and we’re all working towards the same goal for the team.”

Excelling against a team like Spurs and ending the season in good form have given Súper and the team much confidence going into the club’s second foray into the ACL that kicks off on 20th September against Thailand’s Bangkok United. 

And Súper is relishing the challenge. 

“On a personal level, I’m so excited about this competition because I’ve tried for a few years when I was at Ceres but we were often eliminated by strong teams from China or Japan. But finally, this year, I’ll get to compete in the group stage and the team is very motivated to go out there and do a good job,” he said. 

“All of us players want to show Coach Ranko (Aleksandar Ranković) that we are worthy of representing the club in the ACL.” 

With anticipation hanging thick in the air ahead of the Sailors’ 2023/24 ACL opener against Bangkok, Súper hopes to see the Sailors fans fill up Jalan Besar Stadium. 

He added: “I would just like to say to our fans: you have always been there for us through the ups and downs. And I sincerely hope you can do that again to give us that little push that we need in the ACL. 

“Just know that we are striving to put up good performances and also get results that you can be proud of.”