Is Maxime Lestienne currently the best player in the Singapore Premier League (SPL)?

According to Lion City Sailors Head Coach Risto Vidaković, the answer is a resounding “Yes”.

It would be hard to argue with Risto’s assessment, especially after the Belgian scored twice – both via free-kicks – to inspire the Sailors to a 2-1 comeback victory over Geylang International at Our Tampines Hub on Sunday (7 May) evening. 

When asked about the 30-year-old’s match-winning display, Risto did not hold back in his praise, as he said: “There is no doubt in my mind that Maxime is the best player in the league. He’s a superstar, he has played at a higher level, and he shows in every game that he’s the main man on the pitch.

But Maxime and the Sailors were made to work hard for the three points, as Geylang gave as good as they got in front of the raucous home fans.

With the Sailors missing defenders Nur Adam Abdullah, Bill Mamadou and forward Abdul Rasaq Akeem due to their involvement in the ongoing Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, Nathan Mao was handed a spot in the starting line-up, making him the youngest-ever player to start a SPL game at 15 years and 42 days old.

Nathan, who surpassed the previous record holder Raoul Suhaimi (15 years and 239 days old), is also only the second player below the age of 16 to start a SPL game.

Nathan’s big day, however, got off to a bad start as Geylang took the lead after just 10 minutes, with Iqbal Hussain calmly finishing off a clinical counter-attacking move.

The early goal seemed to take the wind out of the Sailors’ sails, and they found themselves pegged back by the Eagles for much of the first half.

This was when Zulqarnaen Suzliman rose to the occasion for the Sailors, as the marauding right-back put his body on the line to prevent Geylang from doubling their lead on at least three occasions. 

“That was just defensive instinct,” said Zulqarnaen. “I always give my best for the team, and I’m happy that I contributed today by preventing the opposition from scoring.

As the clock ticked on, however, it was clear for all to see that the Sailors desperately needed a touch of inspiration to get back into the game against a resolute Geylang side. 

And Maxime duly obliged.

When the Sailors were awarded a free-kick on the right edge of the Geylang penalty box in the 69th minute, everyone expected Maxime to send the ball into the box for someone to get his head on to.

Instead, the forward blindsided the Geylang defence, as well as goalkeeper Hafiz Ahmad, and curled the ball into the top corner with his left foot.

20 minutes later, Maxime struck again. This time, the Sailors were awarded a free-kick on the left edge of the Geylang penalty box – but while the position was different, the outcome was the same, as Maxime curled the ball into the top corner and left Hafiz grasping at air.

Even though the Sailors went down to 10 men in stoppage time following Rusyaidi Salime’s dismissal for an off-the-ball incident, Maxime’s late goal proved to be enough to secure all three points for his team.

“I work a lot on my free-kicks during training,” Maxime revealed. “I’ve taken quite a few already, and it doesn’t go in all the time, so I’m happy that it resulted in goals today. It was a strong game from Geylang, but we had a lot of chances which we should have converted. Thankfully, in the end we managed to score and get a good result.”

Zulqarnaen corroborated Maxime’s account, as he added: “He practices his free-kicks during training, and you can see the results of that today because it made the difference. His technique is incredible, but it also shows that you need to work hard because it will pay off.”

The win leaves the Sailors third in the table, just one point behind Tampines Rovers in second, and five points behind current league leaders and reigning champions Albirex Niigata (S). 

The Sailors will next take on Brunei DPMM at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday (13 May).