The Lion City Sailors dispatched Balestier Khalsa 5-2 at Bishan Stadium on Monday (31 July) night to go second in the Singapore Premier League (SPL), in a match that saw three penalties, moments of brilliance and an avalanche of goals.  

The match was far from a one-sided affair though, as the Sailors had to hustle and overcome several challenges to secure a hard-fought win over Balestier who played with one man less for most of the game following Madhu Mohana’s early red card. 

While satisfied with the three points that put his charges in prime position to become Singapore’s representatives in Asian Football Confederation (AFC) club competitions in 2024, Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković believes there is still much room for improvement.

“We won the game and scored five goals and some of the players that didn’t start as much previously (such as Zulqarnaen Suzliman, Abdul Rasaq Akeem and Christopher van Huizen) played today, and that is very positive. But we had an extra man from the ninth minute of the game, and we should have finished this game much earlier,” said the 44-year-old.

“But I am happy for the win.” 

This result meant that the Sailors are second in the nine-team SPL standings on 45 points, one ahead of Tampines Rovers in the race to finish as the top local side. League leaders Albirex Niigata (S) are still the favourites for the title with a five-point advantage over the Sailors and a game in hand. 

The game sprung into life early on when Balestier centre-back Madhu was given a straight red card following a VAR review, this after tugging Abdul Rasaq down in the penalty box. 

However, Richairo Živković’s resulting penalty on 11 minutes was denied by Tigers goalkeeper Hairul Syirhan as the score remained level. 

Six minutes later, it was Balestier’s turn to be denied from the spot as Sailors custodian Zharfan Rohaizad tipped Ryoya Taniguchi’s effort around the post after Bailey Wright was deemed to have fouled Daniel Goh in the area. 

The Sailors went on to break the deadlock in the 24th minute, with Richairo at the right place at the right time to tap home after Maxime Lestienne’s shot was parried onto his path. 

Balestier took just three minutes to draw level. 

Taniguchi managed to convert a penalty on his second attempt after Masahiro Sugita was brought down in the area by Sailors captain Hariss Harun. 

The Sailors retook the lead in the 35th minute. With the ball at his feet and a clear sight of the goal, Lionel Tan unleashed an audacious shot from nearly 30 yards out, the thunderous shot swerving in the air before bulging the Balestier net. 

Ranko’s charges carried the momentum into the second half and went 3-1 up in the 47th minute with Bailey rising highest to head home his first goal for the club off Maxime’s corner. 

Balestier halved the deficit through Hoshino’s unstoppable shot on 60 minutes, but the Sailors kept going and restored their two-goal advantage just a minute later with Shawal Anuar popping up in the box to convert Chris’s teasing inswinging cross. 

The rout was completed in the 74th minute as substitute Diego Lopes struck a precise corner delivery to tee Bailey up for his second headed goal of the night. 

It was the Australian’s first-ever career brace and he got the Man-of-the-Match for his efforts. 

“It is a much better feeling for me than what it was in my debut for the Sailors and we showed good character today as a team. Even though we made some bad decisions, we got on with it and we got back in the game and I think we deserved to win,” said the 31-year-old, who was shown a straight red card on his Sailors debut – July’s 3-1 loss to Brunei DPMM. 

“There are a lot of positives today such as scoring some really good goals and having some good play but it doesn’t matter what the result is, there is a lot that we can always improve on.”

But Bailey remained modest about his goal-scoring exploits.

“Scoring those two goals was nice but thinking about the goals can hide away the things I didn’t do so well. I want to get better and better and make sure I am at the top of my game week in week out and to do that, I need to have an honest opinion of my performance,” he shared. 

 “To be honest, I am a bit frustrated with my personal game tonight, like giving away a penalty and few other things because as a defender we do not want to concede any goals and be more solid. 

“As a defender, I would rather keep a clean sheet and not concede, and I will look back at the game because there is a lot I want to improve on.”

The Sailors’ next SPL assignment comes around quickly as they travel to Our Tampines Hub to face Tampines on Friday (4 August) night.