It was not the most fluent of displays by the defending Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions, but the Lion City Sailors did enough to grind out a crucial 1-0 win over Young Lions on Wednesday night (6 April) at the Jalan Besar Stadium. 

The result sees Kim Do-hoon’s men finish Matchweek 7 top of the eight-team SPL standings for the first time since the opening weekend of the season, following Tanjong Pagar United’s 3-3 draw with Tampines Rovers in a concurrent match at Our Tampines Hub. 

Gabriel Quak’s 15th minute goal proved to be the decider, but Shahdan Sulaiman acknowledged the need to produce a more cohesive display in the upcoming matches.

“Credit goes to the Young Lions – they stuck to their game plan and they knew how they wanted to play to stop us,” said the 33-year-old midfield lynchpin.

“We didn’t play as well as we wanted to – our game management could have been better and leading by that solitary goal for so long created pressure for ourselves. We have to look at ourselves and ensure that we’re not in this position again.”

Even though the Sailors did not hit top gear, there were positives to be drawn. This was the Sailors’ third clean sheet in their last four outings – back-to-back shutouts for the first time since November 2020 – showcasing the improved defensive solidarity and overall compactness.

Three-time SPL winner Shahdan knows better than most the importance of grinding out victories in a long league season. 

“But we came away with the three points and we’re top of the table now, and that’s a good place to be. For us, the focus is on getting as many points as we can before we fly off for the ACL (Asian Football Confederation Champions League),” he noted. 

Head Coach Kim made just one change to the lineup that started the 4-0 thrashing of Balestier Khalsa five days ago, with Hafiz Nor coming in for Maxime Lestienne on the left flank. 

The Sailors settled into their rhythm early and almost scored after just four minutes, with Shahdan playing a quick one-two with Kim Shin-wook after winning the ball in the attacking third, but saw his resulting shot tipped onto the post by Young Lions goalkeeper Ridhwan Fikri. 

After Hassan Sunny tipped over a Khairin Nadim shot over at the other end, the Sailors went ahead in the 15th minute. Gabriel unleashed a 20-yard daisy-cutter that sneaked into the bottom corner after Song Ui-young’s initial shot was blocked by Jacob Mahler. 

That was 31-year-old Gabriel’s second goal of the season and he proved to be the Young Lions’ slayer again – this was his sixth strike in as many games against them since the Sailors’ inception in 2020. 

The Young Lions did not let their heads go down after conceding, and instead made life difficult for the Sailors with their back five turning in sturdy defensive performances. Nazri Nasir’s boys went close on a few occasions, with Hassan having to get his hands to at least four shots. 

The Sailors were then forced to rejig towards the end of the first half, with Song replaced by Adam Swandi after picking up what appears to be a hamstring injury. That meant Diego Lopes was pushed further up into the no. 10 role, while Hafiz and Gabriel also switched flanks to give some variation in the final third. 

The move brought a bit of an impact with smoother football played after the restart, as Gabriel and Tajeli Salamat going close to doubling the lead. 

Young Lions kept on trying and upped the ante in the final 20 minutes, prompting the Sailors to bring on M. Anumanthan and Amirul Adli to steady the ship. Both men were then involved in a great team move in the 89th minute that should have sealed the three points. 

After Adli had won the ball high up, Anu exchanged passes with Shin-wook before squaring across goal for Diego – who fired against the post from six yards out. 

The Sailors had to keep their heads late on and have Hassan to thank for as he tipped Jacob’s half-volley around the post a minute into injury time to preserve the points for the champions. 

Coach Kim’s immediate attention turned to the top-of-the-table clash against Tanjong Pagar United this coming Saturday (April 9) and is hopeful that his players recover well for another game in quick succession. 

“All teams are facing this issue so this is not an excuse, but it wasn’t easy as this was the first game in the Ramadan period, and we have a tight schedule,” said the former Ulsan Hyundai man. 

“The key now is for the boys to get some good rest because the next game will be very challenging. We’ve to take the confidence from this win and go into the game being very well-prepared.”