The Singapore Premier League (SPL) is well into the business end of its 2023 season, and it has thrown up another high-stakes encounter this Friday (2 August): the Lion City Sailors are set to take on Tampines Rovers at Our Tampines Hub (OTH) in a head-to-head battle for second place – and that coveted spot to represent Singapore at Asian Football Confederation (AFC) club competitions in 2024. 

The Sailors hold a slight edge, their 45-point tally is one ahead of Gavin Lee’s Tampines in a match where victory could all but secure second spot in the nine-team SPL standings, and see the Sailors stay within mathematical reach of Albirex Niigata (S) who are on 50 points. 

The pressure is real but central defender Lionel Tan has a plan.

“They have a squad that has been playing together for several years, and that familiarity is going to make it difficult for us in a high-pressure situation, and the only way to come out on top is to face the pressure and really embrace it,” said the Singapore international. 

“If there’s no pressure in football, it’s not really football, is it?

“We failed to deliver in a couple of moments this year, but we’ve got another chance on Friday and we will grab it with both hands.”

It was a 1-1 draw the last time these two sides faced each other in June, with the Stags edging things 4-3 in the year’s first encounter in March

The Sailors have lost two recent games – 3-1 defeats to Brunei DPMM and the White Swans in July – but Lionel believes the way to make things work is to turn focus inwards, towards facets that can be controlled. 

“They have terrific chemistry and they have players that have played together for a number of years and they play a possession based style of football, and try to create things out of that. But at this stage, what is more important is that we focus on ourselves, how we want to play and what we really want to achieve,” he said.  

“We have so much quality in our ranks that if we’re able to do that, I’m certain we can come out of the game with all three points.”

After his thunderous goal against Balestier Khalsa on Monday, a goal that saw the raucous crowd at Bishan Stadium jump to their feet, the Singapore international is eagerly looking forward to the Sailors fans’ bringing a similar energy to OTH.

“This is definitely one of the biggest fixtures in the league this year and I foresee a fantastic game ahead because both teams are still fighting hard for second spot,” said Lionel. 

“We are playing away and that’s perhaps why it’s even more important that everyone heads to Tampines and spur us on in the same way that they do at Bishan – because there really is no doubt, the 12th man effect is real – and it’s wild.”