It was arguably one of the shock results of the group stages of last year’s Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL), and one that Lion City Sailors fans will remember for a long time.
But while the Sailors’ 3-0 win over South Korean side Daegu FC was a proud and historic day for the club, it also alerted the rest of Asia to the potential threat that the Singapore outfit posed.
According to Sailors attacker Maxime Lestienne, their creditable displays in their maiden ACL voyage last season – which saw them finish the group stage with seven points from six games – will discourage teams from underestimating them this year.
“Last year, we were considered the minnows of the competition, but I think we did a good job and surprised a few teams,” said the former PSV Eindhoven man. “But this year, other teams know more about us, so they’ll be able to better prepare for our game, which will definitely make it more difficult.”
The Sailors have been drawn in Group F for the 2023/24 ACL campaign, alongside Thai outfit Bangkok United – who they will face in their opening match this Wednesday (20 Sept) – Hong Kong Premier League side Kitchee SC, and two-time ACL champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors.
While Jeonbuk are considered favourites to top the group, Maxime believes that the Sailors have nothing to fear when they eventually face the Korean heavyweights.
“People are all talking about Jeonbuk as the favourites, but I don’t think there are any (favourites) in the group,” Maxime declared. “In football, you cannot be afraid of any team. Nothing is impossible – we have to go out there and play our football, follow our coach’s (Aleksandar Ranković) instructions, show our fighting spirit, and most importantly, believe in our quality.”
One player who will certainly add quality to the team is new signing Rui Pires, who joined the club in July after signing from Portuguese side FC Paços de Ferreira.
While 25-year-old Rui featured for the Sailors in the Tiger Cup encounter against Tottenham Hotspur two months ago, he has yet to make his competitive debut for the club.
Fan expectations of Rui are high, especially as the defensive midfielder boasts a wealth of experience at the top-level of football, with appearances in the Portuguese Primera Liga, French Ligue 2, and the UEFA Europa Conference League Qualifiers.
Rui, however, insists that he will thrive despite being under such scrutiny, as he explained: “I put the most pressure on myself every day, in every training session, in every game.
“This pressure drives me to play well and work hard to improve. I’ve been pushing myself and my teammates in training ever since I joined… I feel ready and motivated to finally make my competitive debut for the Sailors.”
Rui added that he is looking forward to playing against some of the biggest teams in the region.
“Since I joined the club, people have been speaking to me about the ACL and telling me all about the teams in the competition and the impressive stadiums that we’ll be playing in,” Rui revealed.
“We’re all aware that we’ll be going up against very good teams, and we’ll play difficult games in the competition. Every team has a lot of quality players, but so do we. The team holds high ambitions for the ACL, but we’ll approach it one game at a time and give our best effort.”
For Maxime, the goal for the Sailors in the ACL this year is clear: to do one better from last year, and progress from the group stage.
“My personal objective is to qualify for the knockout rounds,” Maxime said. “We have a balanced team with experience and youth, and we’ve learned from our experience last year.
“But ultimately, we have to give our all in every game so that when the group stage comes to an end, we can look back and be proud of what we did and have no regrets.
“In order to achieve our goals, all of us have to pull in the same direction and work hard to contribute to the team, regardless of whether you’re in the starting-11 or coming off from the bench. We’ll have to keep our focus and help each other on the pitch.”