The Lion City Sailors Women’s Team channelled nerves into a rousing 3-0 victory over Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) title rivals Albirex Niigata (S) at Clementi Stadium on Sunday night (29 October), opening up a seven-point gap between them and the second-placed White Swans.
The result means Sailors can potentially clinch back-to-back WPL titles next Sunday (5 November) against Geylang International, with the women needing just another three points to open an unassailable lead at the top of the 10-team standings.
“Everyone was nervous and it was stressful because we knew we had to win,” said Head Coach Yeong Sheau Shyan. “Our objective was to be efficient in attack today, to go around the midfield and play down the flanks.”
With teenager Madelin Lock signalling the Sailors’ attacking intent with a shot from distance in the second minute of the game, the stage looked set, but the White Swans responded strongly.
Albirex were hot on the charge in the following ten minutes, forcing the Sailors to work together and fend off the Japanese side’s quick attacking play, even managing to produce convincing counter-attacking opportunities in response.
“We knew that Albirex was stronger than us in the air so we had to make sure we challenged every ball,” said Sheau Shyan. “Beatrice did very well to claim a few.”
Sheau Shyan and the Sailors had Beatrice Tan to thank, the goalkeeper pulling off a string of fine saves to keep her team in the game, especially with Albirex’s 2015 FIFA World Cup silver medallist, Kana Kitahara, looking threatening in front of goal.
Even with a spectacular point-blank save off a Kana header in the 15th minute, Beatrice was quick to give credit to her teammates for their defensive work.
“I think it was Izzati (Rosni) who covered the gap,” Beatrice said. “The Albirex player didn’t get a clean header and therefore I was able to make the save. Without that, it would have been a different story.”
That save provided the Sailors a sturdy platform to go forward in search of goals to secure the three points, and that all-important first goal came in the 19th minute.
Mid-season signing Cara Chang took a cheeky free kick — smashing the ball under the wall of jumping defenders — for the Sailors’ first goal on the night and that was already the 14-year-old’s fifth goal in a promising start to her WPL career.
A few minutes later, an incisive through-ball from Sailors’ top-scorer Izzati set Miray Altun free on the right flank. Miray then calmly lobbed the ball over the Albirex keeper for her sixth goal of the campaign to double the Sailors’ lead.
In the 40th minute, Madelin rounded off a clinical first half from the Sailors with a goal of her own to put the Sailors firmly in the driver’s seat at the Clementi Stadium.
“It’s great that all three goals came from three different players, as it shows the versatility of the team,” Beatrice said. “We don’t rely on a single player. We work together as a team.”
The Sailors switched gears in the second half, with Sheau Shyan directing the team to play a more controlled game to preserve the three-goal lead.
“For the second half, we were keeping our advantage and not over-committing in attack. We had to hold back because we are usually very attacking-minded,” said Sheau Shyan.
“In the end, the team did what was needed — the boring job that was necessary.”
Central defender Sara Hayduchok put in a gutsy performance in the heart of the Sailors’ defence, shutting down several probing Albirex attacks, especially in the second period, but for Beatrice it was the team ethic and commitment to the game plan that were key to victory.
“Everybody always says the same thing about how we stick to the game plan, but it’s really, really true,” said the 31-year-old, who has still conceded just one goal all season. “Coach gave us a plan and everybody stuck to every detail of it, from the corners to the opponents’ goal kick.”
The clean sheet against Albirex is an important personal milestone for Beatrice. Over the last few weeks, the Sailors’ custodian was in recovery mode, nursing a back injury that she had picked up during the national team’s loss to North Korea at the recent Hangzhou Asian Games.
“It feels good to be back, fully fit. I’m really thankful for the support system at the club, including sports trainers Vincent Teo and Lucas Tay for helping me get back on track.”
Beatrice and her Sailors will be looking for the win next week against Geylang to defend the WPL title they won — as Invincibles — in 2022. And even if the Sailors do secure the WPL title next week, Sheau Shyan has set her team’s sights on repeating that feat.
“We have one more target on top of the title,” said Sheau Shyan.
“We want to be unbeaten — again.”