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.”