In their first-ever Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) campaign, the Lion City Sailors gave a good account of themselves as they fell just short of a historic qualification for the competition’s last 16.
The Sailors quickly bounced back from an opening 4-1 defeat to J League powerhouse Urawa Red Diamonds with a stunning 3-0 thrashing of K League side Daegu FC, before a 0-0 draw and 3-2 win over Chinese Super League champions Shandong Taishan.
A 6-0 loss to Urawa thereafter was followed by a narrow 2-1 defeat to Daegu as they eventually finished third in Group F, but there were plenty of positives to take away for the Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions as they set a few records along the way.
Here we look back on the five major talking points from a memorable maiden voyage.
Singaporean clubs can compete at this level
Most points, most wins, most clean sheets and most goals scored by a Singapore club in a single ACL campaign – the Sailors showed that with the right investment and strategy, an outfit from this tiny island can be competitive against Asia’s big boys.
To go into the final group game with qualification hopes within reach, the Sailors demonstrated that Singapore clubs are not as far off from a historic last-16 finish in the ACL as it was initially believed. And it is a journey that has hopefully inspired – and galvanised – the Singapore football community. The mindset now has to shift from participating in this competition for experience to going in and driving to get beyond the group stages.
The Sailors’ good run this year serves as a catalyst for the club to double down on its efforts to drive further improvements in the local game – be it fine-tuning structures or investing in the up-and-coming generation of young footballers so that the Singapore flag can continue to be flown high on the continent.
The team’s ability to adjust to tactical demands
Eyebrows were raised when Kim Do-hoon tinkered and experimented with the team a little in the first round of SPL fixtures, but the South Korean tactician knew what he was doing as he geared his charges up for the ACL.
Against the cream of the crop in the continent, the Sailors showed that they can mix it up and switch to differing modes against varying opponents. In the two matches against Daegu, the team excelled with five at the back with the solidity of the structure giving the attackers the licence to roam forwards in counter-attacks utilising the pace of Maxime Lestienne and Faris Ramli alongside Song Ui-young. Against Shandong, they lined up in their more accustomed 4-2-3-1 where they displayed their dominance in possession and controlling the tempo of the game.
Coach Kim’s tactical know-how and the players’ ability to adapt truly came to the fore as they put up several creditable performances.
Song showing that he can elevate his game
There were a few impressive performers for the Sailors in this campaign – Hassan Sunny was his usual steady self in goal, Pedro Henrique was a rock in defence, Shahdan Sulaiman showed his class in midfield, but Song was undeniably the Sailors’ star pupil in the Class of 2022.
The 28-year-old did not even start the first game against Urawa, but never looked back once he was handed the chance against Daegu in Matchday 2 with his majestic header leading the Sailors to that sensational 3-0 win over Daegu.
Finishing the campaign off with a long-range scorcher against the same opposition meant he became the all-time Singaporean top scorer in the ACL with three goals. But beyond getting on the scoresheet, Song led the line superbly with his infectious energy that meant the Sailors always posed a threat on the counter-attack.
With the same desire and work ethic that saw him battle back from being on the periphery to a key member of the 2021 title-winning squad, Song gave everything in Buriram and proved his worth to not just the team – but also to the continent that he truly belonged on this stage.
On the right track, but patience needed
The Sailors showed glimpses of what they are capable of, backing up that 3-0 triumph over Daegu with another creditable display in the unlucky final-day loss against the same opponents – proving that the previous victory was no fluke.
However, there were games and instances that also showed the inexperience or gulf in class that still exists between them and Asia’s big guns – and there is no hiding from that. This was the Sailors’ maiden ACL voyage and it will take more games for Singaporean footballers to get properly accustomed to the intensity and concentration required to consistently compete at this level.
Looking not far beyond Singapore shores, Malaysian giants Johor Darul Ta’zim have bossed their domestic league for the past decade but it was on their fourth try when they managed to qualify for the ACL’s last 16 for the first time.
Focus is now on earning the ticket back into ACL
After jostling with Asia’s best on the continent’s top table, the Sailors must quickly recalibrate and focus on the club’s bread and butter – the SPL – starting from this Friday’s (6 May) clash against Hougang United.
Kim’s men are four points clear of the rest, but there should be no letting up with still three rounds of fixtures (21 more games) left to be played.
Kim has already told his charges that the focus must be retaining the levels of intensity they have demonstrated they can attain, and consistently achieving results to get their hands on the SPL title again.
Only the top Singapore side gains entry into the ACL and the Sailors have to go out there to earn the right to compete at the highest level again in 2023 as well as the subsequent years to come.
Winning the SPL is a milestone on the Sailors’ lofty target of becoming one of Asia’s elite clubs, and the club must continue to consistently prove that it deserves the spot at Asia’s top table.