The Lion City Sailors Women’s Team may only be playing their second match of the 2024 Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) season this Sunday (24 March) night, but the significance of that fixture cannot be overstated.

After all, they will face arguably the sternest test to their proud, two-year unbeaten record, when they take on title rivals Albirex Niigata (S) at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

Albirex have made no secret of their desire to dethrone the Sailors as WPL champions this season. This ambition has been backed up by their off-season transfers, which saw them bring in the likes of 2022 WPL Player of the Year Manami Fukuzawa, Singapore national skipper Siti Rosnani Azman and former Sailors Lila Tan, Ernie Sulastri Sontaril, and Nur Izzati Rosni.

But while Albirex – who are led by player-coach Kana Kitahara, a former Japan international – will undoubtedly be keen to make a statement and lay down a title marker with a win on Sunday, Sailors defender Sara Hayduchok urged her teammates to stay calm and focus on their football instead of the magnitude of the game.

She said, “Challenges, fears, and mistakes are all part of the game. This weekend’s match will be no exception. Each of us has a responsibility to ourselves and our teammates to maintain focus, tenacity, and encourage each other in every situation.

“In this season, no one can afford to get comfortable at any point. There’s ample time for future match results and unforeseen factors to influence the season’s final outcome.”

Sara also revealed that the Sailors have prepared in detail for their match against Albirex, as the 28-year-old elaborated, “With more high-profile players on Albirex’s team, we have a deeper understanding of their strengths and weaknesses compared to last year. As a result, our preparations have also become more specific. 

“Nonetheless, the objective has always been to excel in our team’s playing style, and that remains the same from match to match.”

Having won their opening games, the Sailors and Albirex currently sit second and third in the WPL table respectively, with Hougang United setting the early-season pace at the top with two wins in two.

Like Albirex, the Sailors also underwent a revamp of their playing personnel during the off-season, with the team now comprising a slew of teenagers promoted from the Sailors’ Girls Academy.

While this new-look Sailors squad might not be as experienced as the previous two iterations, Sara is confident that the team’s young guns will be able to handle the pressure of playing against a title rival.

After all, most of the Sailors’ newly-promoted players played for Mattar Sailors in the Women’s National League (WNL) last year. During that campaign, they reached the final, facing a Royal Arion team that included four former Thai National team players with World Cup experience.

“This is not the first team our younger players have played for impressive crowds under immense pressure. I have seen their growth even in the last few months and feel confident that they will carry out their responsibilities this weekend,” Sara declared.

One of the Sailors’ newly promoted players is Tyan Foong, who joins her sister Tia in the senior squad. Having made her WPL debut in the Sailors’ 5-0 win over Tiong Bahru earlier this month, Tyan is looking forward to testing herself against Albirex.

The centre-back credits Sailors Women’s Head Coach Daniel Ong for helping her prepare for the game with intensive training sessions, as she said, “Playing against Albirex will definitely be a test for me. In training, the new players put in our best effort to reach the WPL seniors’ standards so as not to fall behind.

“We’re doing sprinting sets at almost every training session, so I think that itself is a mental game that we have to play.”

The younger Foong sister also revealed that she uses visualisation methods to prepare herself mentally for the game.

“Sometimes, I can get a little overwhelmed (before the game), so I’ve learned how to keep myself calm. I’ve trained hard ever since I stepped foot into the team, so hopefully it will pay off,” said Tyan.

“This weekend will be an exciting game and I am definitely nervous, but I am just going to give my best. I think a personal goal for me is not to panic during the game itself, to be able or play like my normal self from start to finish, passing every ball with intention and receiving every ball knowing what to do next.”