The result might not be what he had wanted, but scoring what is the Lion City Sailors’ first Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) goal on Singapore soil is one that will be etched firmly in Diego Lopes’ memory.
A signature cross from full-back Christopher Van Huizen was only partially cleared by Bangkok United captain, Everton Goncalves, falling perfectly for his fellow countryman in White and Blue – and Diego showed no hesitation, pouncing to slam home.
“It’s always good to score a goal but scoring a goal at home, in front of the cheering crowd, it’s definitely much better,” said the Sailors no. 10.
That fond memory was still not enough to forget the frustrations from that night, which saw the Sailors ultimately fall 2-1 to the Thai League 1 leaders in their opening Group F fixture at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
But ahead of a trip to face reigning Hong Kong Premier League Champions, Kitchee SC, on Wednesday (4 October), the Singapore Premier League’s (SPL) record signing remains confident that the Sailors have a talented squad with enough ability and firepower to compete at the highest level in the region.
“We have a competitive team that can play and win games in this competition. We just need 100% concentration from the start to the final minute,” he said.
Indeed, just a quick glance at the Sailors’ maiden voyage into the ACL last year is enough to remind the team the defeat to Bangkok United does not mean the dream is over.
The 2022 ACL campaign also began with a defeat, a 4-1 loss at the hands of eventual champions Urawa Red Diamonds, but two wins and a draw later, that same voyage ended with a historic 7 points finish.
The team has since set its sights on surpassing that tally in 2023, a feat that will likely be required for the team to advance to the next round.
“Last year, it was generally a good campaign for us, being there for the first time, rubbing shoulders with some of the big boys in Asia, achieving some credible results.”
“So this year, we want to see progress,” said team captain Hariss Harun.
“There’s a reason why it’s called the Champions League. The teams are all there on merit and they deserve to play in this competition, so we have to show that we’re amongst the best.”
Keeping their eyes on the ultimate prize of qualification for the Round of 16 will be essential for the Sailors, but the road ahead is not a straightforward one.
One of the many challenges the team will face is the need to cope with daunting atmospheres at away grounds.
This obstacle is one that Hariss has experienced throughout his career, be it captaining the Singapore national team, as or in the Malaysia Super League with LionsXII and Johor Darul Ta’zim.
“I think it’s something that you relish as a player. You don’t just look forward to playing at home in front of your own fans but also away, in front of a massive crowd in a hostile environment, to test yourself and how you handle the pressure,” he said.
Diego, who comes with a wealth of experience playing in countries like Portugal and Brazil, is also no stranger to intimidating away match atmospheres.
“Going away to play an away match where we play against their crowd, their supporters, we will definitely have to be more mature and focused,” he said.
The Sailors will definitely be looking to bring the momentum from the 7-0 victory in their Singapore Cup Group B opener against Balestier Khalsa to the Hong Kong Stadium against Kitchee.
And Diego, who recorded a hat trick against the Tigers, is prepared to do everything he can to help the Sailors to their first ACL victory of 2023.
“Of course, scoring goals is good but that’s not my main objective. My main objective is to play well and help the team. If I don’t score and the team wins that’s really okay – actually it’s perfectly fine because the most important thing is to get that win.
“And that’s what we’re aiming for on Wednesday in Hong Kong.”