It was a dangerous test for the Lion City Sailors, coming up against the only unbeaten side in the Singapore Premier League (SPL), less than 48 hours before leaving for their maiden Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League (ACL) campaign.
But the defending champions showed up in scintillating fashion, convincingly beating Tanjong Pagar United 6-1 on Saturday night (9 April) at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Brazilian playmaker Diego Lopes at his mesmerising best as he set the Sailors on their way with a brace in the opening half-hour, before Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne came on at half time to chalk up two assists and his first-ever goal for the club. Shahdan Sulaiman, Kim Shin-wook and Hafiz Nor were the other scorers on a night to remember for the Sailors fans.
Fans were treated to a captivating display by Diego who was a constant thorn in the Jaguars backline with his trickery and close control, and at times seemed unplayable. The 27-year-old has never felt more physically fit since he arrived in January 2021 and he believes he will get even better, in what appears perfect timing for the Sailors who depart for Buriram, Thailand, to face Asia’s best on Monday.
“I’ve been working hard on my physical condition, putting in sprints after training and doing gym with (Sailors’ Head of Performance) Mario (Jovanovic) for upper body strengthening. I also started changing my diet last season with the help of a nutritionist arranged for by the club,” said the former Rio Ave man, who has now started the last five games after initial difficulties in holding down a first eleven spot under Kim Do-hoon.
“Now I’m beginning to see the results – I’m stronger and fitter this season. The help from our medical department and trust by Coach also gives me a lot of confidence, so you can see I’m enjoying myself a lot more on the pitch.”
Just eight minutes in, Diego made his mark in the top-of-the-table clash by ghosting in to meet Iqram Rifqi’s deep cross and arch a brilliant header beyond Zharfan Rohaizad.
“This was one of my best matches, but the whole team played well, and I think it comes down to the hard work that we all have been putting in training sessions,” added Diego.
“This positive result will only encourage us as we go on to play in the ACL.”
This was the final game before embarking on their ACL adventure, but the Sailors showed that there is no letting up in terms of desire and intensity, with M. Anumanthan shutting down the threat of Jaguars’ influential playmaker Mirko Šugić, and the Sailors winning the majority of second balls.
Kim’s men would double their advantage in the 28th minute through a brilliant team move from back to front, with Diego striding onto Gabriel Quak’s slide-rule pass before firing in between Daniel Bennett’s legs into the bottom left corner.
The Brazilian continued to pull the strings from the middle of the park and it was his visionary ball over the top that led to Shahdan slotting home the Sailors’ third five minutes later.
The Sailors were relentless and could have gotten more goals before half time, but Diego was agonisingly denied a hat-trick when his attempt to hook the ball over Zharfan was hacked off the line before Anaqi Ismit struck the bar.
Maxime then came on for Anaqi at the break and he would make an instant impact 40 seconds after coming on. The Belgian got onto the end of Tajeli Salamat’s low cross before squaring across goal for Shin-wook to make it four from close range.
The Sailors’ defence was finally breached in the 71st minute – conceding their first goal after 296 minutes of football – when Pedro Henrique inadvertently diverted Rusyadi Salime’s free-kick past Izwan Mahbud.
However, the four-goal advantage was restored almost immediately with Hafiz applying the finishing touch on another excellent Maxime cross – this just nine minutes after the Singapore international came on for Gabriel.
Maxime put the icing on the Sailors’ cake in the final minute of regulation time, feinting past two Jaguars defenders before producing a fanciful finish into an empty net for his maiden goal for the club.
It was a result and display to savour, with Head Coach Kim expressing utmost satisfaction as the Sailors now lead the table by four points.
“We did concede a goal and that was a bit disappointing, but we were close to perfect in this match. We displayed our football and were on top. We’re just very happy that we put on a good show for the fans before we fly off to Buriram,” said the former Ulsan Hyundai man.
“We have to continue this good momentum in the ACL and we want to represent Singapore well in this competition. The key is to recover and adapt well once we’re over there.”