Defensive solidity, an audacious Kim Shin-wook Panenka penalty – and perhaps a dash of luck – were what it took for the Lion City Sailors to defeat Tampines Rovers in a hard-fought 1-0 victory at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday night (13 March) and return to winning ways in the Singapore Premier League (SPL).
In a week that saw the team hard at work to sort out issues that resulted in a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Geylang International on 4 Mar, Head Coach Kim Do-hoon did not have the luxury of a full squad with a number of players not in condition to train, and others out through injuries.
The South Korean went with seven changes to the Sailors’ lineup and the much-changed side repaid his confidence with a clean sheet – and the three points – to deny a solid Tampines side that carved out several promising opportunities.
This was only the Sailors’ second clean sheet in 14 outings, including the AIA Community Shield, since Kim took over in July 2021, and he acknowledged that his team should be coming away with clean sheets with regularity.
“I’ve always said that playing better football and dominating the game starts from being solid in defence, and that’s what the boys showed today. This is our first clean sheet this year and that was the most satisfying thing from this match,” said the former Ulsan Hyundai man.
“It’s not an excuse, but this was a difficult week with the conditions that we had. I put out the players in the best shape to play in the match, and every one of them did their part tonight. They played for their teammates who were not with us this week.
“I just want to thank the boys who played for making such an effort to get the result, and it’s clear that everyone needs to be ready to play – there’s no so-called best eleven for us – when the opportunity comes, you have to take it. And this also ensures healthy competition within our team,” he added.
Kim restored stalwarts Hassan Sunny, Shahdan Sulaiman and Shin-wook to the starting eleven, while others like Diego Lopes, Haiqal Pashia and Naqiuddin Eunos were handed their first starts of the campaign. In the absence of the suspended Pedro Henrique, Amirul Adli also came in to partner Hariss Harun at the heart of defence.
The rejigged Sailors faced issues against a fluid Tampines side, especially in the first half, but held the fort. Hassan was his usual excellent self in goal, tipping Boris Kopitović’s shot onto the post before denying Taufik Suparno with two point-blank saves all within the first 10 minutes. When the 37-year-old was finally beaten in the 21st minute, Adli was alert and positioned himself well to clear Yasir Hanapi’s goal-bound shot off the line.
With Gavin Lee’s men constantly working their way into dangerous areas, the Sailors stood firm with Diego – on his first start since September 2021 – also putting in a solid defensive shift, dropping back into his area to block off another promising Tampines chance.
The Sailors’ only meaningful opportunity was a 14th minute Shin-wook header off a Diego cross, but that did not hit the target.
Half-time provided the opportunity for Kim to change things around – with Hafiz Nor coming on to play in an unfamiliar right-back role in place of Naqiuddin, while Adam Swandi replaced Saifullah Akbar as Shahdan’s midfield partner.
The changes appeared to bring more balance to the team, and the Sailors began to show more desire and aggression to press higher up the pitch – with Diego hassling Kyoga Nakamura to win the ball before seeing his curling shot tipped around the post two minutes into the second half.
The match-deciding moment came in the 55th-minute after Pashia was adjudged to be brought down by Christopher van Huizen in the area. Shin-wook duly stepped up from the spot and had the audacity – as well as execution – to pull off a Panenka effort that bamboozled Tampines goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari.
A combination of some dogged defending and Lady Luck thereafter ensured the Sailors held out for the victory. First, left-back Iqram Rifqi produced a goal-saving challenge on Zehrudin Mehmedović when the Serbian was through on goal on 66 minutes.
Then Tampines saw two goals ruled out – with substitute Firdaus Kasman’s opportunistic 68th minute shot disallowed with Yasir adjudged to be interfering with play from an offside position, before Mehmedović was deemed marginally ahead of the Sailors’ last defender when he fired home an overhead kick in the area six minutes later.
In what was a welcome sight, Gabriel Quak then came on for the final five minutes for his first appearance since sustaining a shoulder injury during last December’s AFF Suzuki Cup as the Sailors collected their second win of the season to remain level on six points with Albirex Niigata (S) – and one behind leaders Tanjong Pagar United.
While Kim readily admitted it was not the most fluent of performances, the three points was ultimately most important as they gear up for an important away clash against Albirex this coming Friday (18 Mar).
“It was a well-deserved victory, the boys did exactly what we asked of them at half-time and changed the game for us, but we won’t get too carried away with this win,” said the 51-year-old.
“We know we need to show huge improvement in our football. We need to start to play our football from the first minute, we need to do better in timing our press, and also our positioning.
“(For Tampines’ disallowed goals) Luck is part of this Beautiful Game and it’s the referee who makes the decisions. For us, we will definitely look back on those images – not to see and decide whether it’s a goal – but to work on how we can defend better as a team.”