In 10 days, the Lion City Sailors will line up in what will be the most important match in the club’s 20th month of existence.
Kim Do-hoon’s charges host Balestier Khalsa at the Jalan Besar Stadium on 10 October, the final matchday of the Singapore Premier League (SPL) season, still in control of their destiny and the destination of the SPL trophy.
A win will put the Sailors in prime position to become Singapore’s champions for the first time in the club’s history, with Albirex Niigata (S) needing to beat Tanjong Pagar United, and win by five more goals than whatever margin Hassan Sunny and his team manage victory.
In what has been a bit of a rollercoaster 2021, we look back at five key milestones on the Sailors’ journey into uncharted waters.
1. Jorge Fellipe’s first goal in Singapore football, 7 April
After a topsy-turvy start to the 2021 season that witnessed two wins, a draw and a loss, the Sailors lined up against defending SPL champions Albirex – and the match was not going particularly well.
Two goals down in the first half, the Sailors pulled one back just before half-time. The second period saw the boys in blue throw everything at Albirex to no avail – even missing a penalty.
Up stepped big Jorge, with a towering header off a Naqiuddin Eunos right-wing cross to level things up with just three minutes left to play – his first goal in Singapore football.
The Sailors rescued a point – and prevented their main title rivals from gaining two – in a result that sparked reaction from the side that went on a six-match winning streak immediately after to get the season back on track.
2. That Diego Lopes wondergoal, 24 April
The Sailors lost 3-1 to Hougang United in March – the Cheetahs are the only team to have beaten the club in 2021 – and were struggling to break down a Hougang side that were again set up to frustrate.
Receiving the ball at the edge of the box from a Faris Ramli throw-in, Diego swiveled and unleashed a right-foot volley that seemingly defied the laws of physics as it curled outwards and dipped into the top corner of the Hougang net.
That goal silenced the Hougang Stadium, and ensured the Sailors exorcised ghosts of the club’s solitary defeat.
3. Kim Do-hoon’s first training session, 29 June
This may have been an introductory session held behind closed doors at the Jalan Besar Stadium, but it was a game-changer. Kim would be the third man taking charge of the Sailors in 2021, but the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) winner brought more than just stability.
On that day, he set in place demands on fitness, and an attitude of excellence that has held true since the Korean took charge. The Sailors are still on a 16-match unbeaten run – with Kim in charge for nine of those matches – including four matches in which they had to come from behind to secure points.
As a bonus for football fans in Singapore, Kim’s Sailors play an entertaining brand of attacking football.
4. A momentary lapse that changed threatened to derail the title charge, 17 September
A win over Albirex would have put the Sailors firmly in the driver’s seat for the SPL title, with just three games to play – and things were looking good at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Haiqal Pashia put the Sailors in front in the 23rd minute, and the Sailors held the fort for the 70 minutes that followed, even creating chances to kill off the match.
But a lapse in concentration saw the Sailors fail to pick up the run of Ryoya Taniguchi, whose header trickled over the line, with just seconds left to play.
The result gave Albirex the advantage in the title race, with the Sailors now needing to win their remaining games, and hope for a favour from Albirex’s two remaining opponents – Tampines Rovers and Tanjong Pagar United.
5. A resounding thumping of the Stags, 21 September 29
The Sailors dismantled the Stags at Our Tampines Hub, with a display of clinical finishing to take advantage of an error-strewn Tampines performance and triumph 6-1.
The thumping proved to be a wake-up call for Tampines that put in an inspired display of disciplined defence in their next fixture – a 0-0 draw with Albirex Niigata.
Those two results saw the Sailors regain the advantage, and wrestled control of their SPL destiny back from the White Swans, taking us to the present day, where a win over Balestier Khalsa on 10 Oct, could see the Sailors take the final step across the line, and be crowned SPL champions for the first time.