Last night (10 March) the Lion City Sailors returned to Jalan Besar Stadium for the first time since the club moved out of the venue for Bishan at the end of the 2022 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season. But the Sailors looked like they never left.
With Maxime Lestienne as conductor extraordinaire on Jalan Besar’s artificial green stage, the Sailors waltzed around Hougang United, comfortably dispatching the Cheetahs 5-0.
Magnificent Max scored two goals and set up another two for his teammates on the night, but he was quick to turn attention back to the team and the title race.
“I’m very happy with what I was able to do today, but it was a team performance, especially from Diego (Lopes) and (Abdul) Rasaq (Akeem) who scored,” said the Belgian, whose goal and assist tally for 2023 stands at five and eight respectively.
“I hate to lose, and I was really upset about our loss to Tampines so I’m happy that we got the three points. We were able to show glimpses of what we are capable of and what our coach expects of us – something we failed to do last time out,” added Maxime.
“I’m happy with my performance so far this season, just try to do my best every day. I don’t really care if I score – that’s a bonus, of course – but the most important thing for me is that we win games and push to win the league title.”
The result was the perfect response that Head Coach Risto Vidaković had called for, following the 4-3 reverse to Tampines on 31 March.
Having made three changes to the starting line-up, Risto’s Sailors took just five minutes to open the scoring.
After Rasaq – who returned to the starting line-up after missing the Tampines match – was fouled on the edge of the area by Kristijan Krajček in the fifth minute, Maxime proceeded to curl a sumptuous free-kick past a Zaiful Nizam at full stretch.
The game turned in Hougang’s favour thereafter, Sailors custodian Zharfan Rohaizad being kept busy with Hougang even putting the ball in the back of his net through Krajček on 38 minutes, but it was ruled out for offside, much to the relief of the Sailors defence.
The Sailors would go two up just before half-time when the unmarked Rasaq clinically swept home Maxime’s cutback from inside the area.
Rasaq then netted his second of the evening in the 72nd minute with an unerring finish after being teed up by Hami Syahin. It was the forward’s fifth league goal of the season, surpassing the four he netted with the Young Lions in 2022.
“He’s a young player who needs time, but for now he is giving more than expected so it’s a good thing,” Risto said of the 21-year-old.
Rasaq was soon replaced by new signing Bernie Ibini-Isei for his Sailors debut, and the goals kept coming.
Diego – who took over the armband after Hariss Harun was replaced by M Anumanthan – got his name on the scoresheet two minutes from time, poking home following a stunning team move – with Maxime again the creator – for his second goal of the season.
The Belgian rounded off the scoring in stoppage time with a tidy finish into the far corner as the Sailors returned to winning ways.
Risto said after the match: “We struggled a lot in the first half where we couldn’t really keep the ball and play the way we wanted, but things got better after the third goal and we showed what we can do.
“I understand that it wasn’t easy on the players, it’s normal for the younger members of the team, especially those who may not have been in this situation of challenging for the title. Hopefully this win will give them the necessary confidence for the upcoming games.”
The Sailors will be in action in the SPL again this Saturday, 15 April, when they face the Young Lions at the same venue.