The Lion City Sailors put in a brave performance to mark their Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) debut, but were still beaten 4-1 by Japanese powerhouse Urawa Red Diamonds at Buriram’s Thunder Castle on Friday night (15 April). 

Up against the two-time ACL champions who reached the tournament’s final as recently as in 2017 and 2019, Kim Do-hoon’s men battled hard and even enjoyed a few good moments, but Urawa’s pace and panache proved to be the key difference. 

Speaking at the post-match press conference, Kim lauded his players’ efforts while acknowledging they were not their usual selves.

“Obviously, this being our maiden tournament, there was a bit of nervousness amongst the boys. Before we came to the stadium tonight, I told them let’s not give ourselves pressure and just go out and play, but that’s not easy because after all this is the highest tier of competition any player in Asia can compete in,” said the 51-year-old, who led Ulsan Hyundai to the 2020 ACL title.

“I could feel the nervous energy from the team even from the bench, but I have to say a big thank you to my boys who didn’t give up. As a coach, you want your players to give everything on the pitch and that’s exactly what they did tonight and I’m very proud of them.” 

Having made it clear that the Sailors are not here for holiday, Kim put out a strong and attack-minded eleven with fleet-footed wingers Maxime Lestienne and Gabriel Quak flanking Brazilian playmaker Diego Lopes behind two-time ACL winner Kim Shin-wook. 

The reigning SPL champions got off to a positive start, with captain Hariss Harun – one of only two Sailors, along with Shin-wook, with ACL experience – winning a series of aerial duels to set the tone as the Sailors pushed forward to threaten the Red Devils. 

The Sailors could have taken the lead seven minutes into the game through a well-worked move that started from the back, but Gabriel could only volley over from Maxime’s teasing left-wing delivery. 

Urawa were much more clinical, finding the breakthrough just a minute later with Danish forward and 2020 Norwegian league top scorer, Kasper Junker, ghosting into the penalty area to score with a brilliant angled header off Ataru Esaka’s cross. 

Sailors goalkeeper Hassan Sunny stood up strong to deny a goal-bound Esaka header in the 11th minute, but there was no stopping the Japanese international four minutes later. Esaka doubled Urawa’s lead, side-footing home after being teed up by Yusuke Matsuo. 

Kim switched things up midway through the first half with Hafiz Nor replacing Gabriel down the right, but Japan’s Emperor’s Cup holders continued their dominance, scoring a third on 42 minutes through a wonderfully-executed David Moberg Karlsson volley that went in off the post. 

The former Swedish international would, however, gift the Sailors their first ACL goal just a minute later. Under pressure from Maxime, Karlsson over-hit a backpass that flew past a bemused Zion Suzuki in the Urawa goal.

That goal gave the handful of travelling Sailors fans something to cheer about going into the break.  

But Urawa restored their three-goal advantage just 45 seconds after the restart with Atsuki Ito squaring across the six-yard box for Matsuo to tap into an empty net. It was hardly an ideal start to the second half, but the Sailors would grow into the game from then on going toe-to-toe with the Japanese giants. 

Maxime – one of Sailors’ best performers on the night – went on a few good runs down the left and almost set up a goal for Shin-wook in the 54th minute, but the South Korean was denied a goal on his 53rd ACL appearance as his speculative left-footed drive from range was tipped over the bar. 

Maxime then earned a free kick off experienced Japanese right-back Hiroki Sakai, before coming off for what looked like a hamstring injury in the 74th minute.  

Hafiz’s well-struck effort from the resulting freekick stung the palms of Urawa goalkeeper, Suzuki. 

Kim then threw on Nur Adam Abdullah and Song Uiyoung from the bench, as the Sailors battled to the final whistle of their ACL debut that was full of both lessons and positives to take forward. 

Next up on Monday (18 April) is a clash against 2021 K League 1 second runners-up Daegu FC, who thrashed China’s Shandong Taishan 7-0 in Group F’s opening fixture yesterday (15 April).

“In the second half, we kept our heads up, were more relaxed, and showed that we can play football. That’s something we need to keep working on in this campaign. 

“The reality is clear – the level is different – and we accept that, but the gap’s definitely going to be reduced through the five remaining group games,” stressed Kim. 

“I want to give my greatest gratitude to the fans who travelled a long way to come here to support us and I want to assure all our fans that we’ll try our best to get closer to the top teams in Asia while we’re here.”