The task at hand was clear: win to secure second spot in the nine-team Singapore Premier League (SPL) standings, and that was exactly what the Lion City Sailors did, sweeping aside Hougang United in an emphatic 8-2 victory at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday (13 August) evening. 

The result meant that the Sailors will be Singapore’s representatives in Asian Football Confederation (AFC) club competitions in the 2024/25 season. They have accumulated 51 points from 23 games played, seven clear of third-placed Tampines Rovers, who have played a game fewer but can no longer catch up for second. 

Sailors head coach Aleksandar Ranković praised his charges after seeing them secure a runners-up finish in sensational fashion, with the usual suspects Maxime Lestienne and Diego Lopes delivering on the night, and the added bonus of Christopher van Huizen and Haiqal Pashia getting their first goals of the season. 

“The goal we set when I came here was to finish in first place, but we knew it was going to be difficult,” said the Serbian, who has steered the Sailors to six wins in eight SPL games since being appointed on 28 June. “We didn’t get that, but we didn’t give up till the end, and finishing second is massively important for us, because it secures AFC participation.” 

“Today we did a really good job in the transitions and I can see that the team is getting fitter. I’m very proud of everyone in the team and we can now go into this break with a really good feeling.” 

The Sailors started the contest the brighter of the two and went 1-0 up on 11 minutes through Diego, this after Abdul Rasaq Akeem had rattled the bar earlier. 

Rising highest to meet Nur Adam Abdullah’s left-wing cross, Diego planted an accurate header into Zaiful Nizam’s bottom corner to take his tally to eight for the season. 

Rasaq was not to be denied, expertly curling home his 10th of the season after being picked out by Diego on 24 minutes as the 22-year-old struck double digits in a single campaign for the first time in his career. 

Hougang would pull one back three minutes later when Richairo Živković inadvertently turned in Naoki Kuriyama’s header off Kristijan Krajček’s corner. 

It was something Ranko was keen to cut out, having conceded in similar fashion against Tampines in their previous game.

“We controlled the match in the first-half, but conceded a really easy goal again from another set-piece. It’s happened in two straight games and we have to work on that,” he noted, with his eyes now set on the next big assignment for the Sailors, the AFC Champions League (ACL) which starts in mid-September.

“This cannot happen in the ACL because mistakes like this can cost you games.” 

The second half was in stark contrast to the opening 45, with Richairo lashing home into the far corner two minutes after the restart to restore Sailors’ two-goal lead.

Chris then capped off a 20-pass move with a blistering strike for his maiden goal in Sailors colours in the 61st minute to extend the lead to 4-1. 

Seven minutes later, substitute Gabriel Quak returned to haunt the Sailors when he hit an unstoppable shot from the edge of the box which beat Zharfan Rohaizad at full stretch.

That joy proved to be short-lived for the home side as Sailors made it 5-2 in the 73rd minute, with Maxime teeing up Richairo for his second of the night with the Curaçaon forward scoring a brace for a second straight match. 

Richairo then returned the favour in the 78th minute, providing the cutback for Maxime to fire in his first of the evening.

There were just 12 minutes left to play, but the Sailors were not done just yet. 

Having nicked the ball off Nazrul Nazari, the effervescent Zulqarnaen Suzliman laid it on a plate for Maxime to produce an impudent flick past Zaiful seven minutes from time. 

The Belgian’s brace means he currently leads the SPL goalscorer charts with 25 goals, three ahead of Balestier Khalsa’s Ryoya Taniguchi.

Pashia would then round off the scoring in injury-time with a cool finish after latching onto a pass from fellow substitute Hami Syahin his first since scoring in a 4-0 win over Tampines in May 2022

With a pair of goals and three assists to his name, Man-of-the-Match Maxime played down his contributions. 

“The season was not easy for all of us and I felt a little sad not to have been crowned as champions. We tried and gave everything we could and while I’m happy with the goals and assists today, the most important thing was that the team won,” the former Standard Liege man said. 

The Sailors’ next assignment will see them face Geylang International in their final SPL fixture on September 16, but Ranko already has eyes firmly set on what lies thereafter. 

“We are definitely going for the Singapore Cup,” he asserted.

“We are also in the ACL and we need to see who we are drawn against, but we are going to prepare well and not just make the numbers. That’s my main goal in the weeks ahead.”