There were five high-quality goals scored, moments of scintillating attacking football, and three Singapore Premier League (SPL) points in the bag. 

But despite the 5-4 victory over Bishan Stadium neighbours Balestier Khalsa on Thursday (1 June), Lion City Sailors Head Coach Risto Vidaković was bristling. 

“It was a terrible game for us, and we definitely have things to think about and improve on. There are several lessons to take from this game, and we were lucky to maintain the lead and win the game,” said the 54-year-old.

The night did not get off to the smoothest of starts for the Sailors as Nur Adam Abdullah and Adam Swandi picked up yellow cards in the first 10 minutes. 

But in the 19th minute, a sensational Shawal Anuar 40-yard lob that shot high into the Bishan sky before dipping sharply down, over the flailing Hairul Syirhan and into the Balestier net seemed to set Sailors properly back on track. 

Despite a Fabian Kwok header levelling the scores just two minutes later, the Sailors looked to have taken the game by the scruff of the neck, with Maxime Lestienne (37th minute), Diego Lopes (39th) and Shawal (55th) giving the Sailors a 4-1 lead. 

The Tigers pulled one back in the 66th minute, courtesy of Ryoya Taniguchi. But the dynamic threat of the Sailors’ frontline was just too much for the Tigers as Maxime comfortably slotted home his second in the 76th minute to make it 5-2.

With just 14 minutes and injury time to play, it should have been game, set, and match for the title-chasing Sailors. 

It was anything but. 

The dogged Balestier side upped the tempo, shook the Sailors and launched what would have seemed an impossible comeback. 

The Tigers scored through Shuhei Hoshino in the 82nd minute, then earned a penalty just three minutes later, following an on-field VAR review. Taniguchi stepped up to score his second of the night with tensions running high in the immediate aftermath.

Despite the Sailors hanging on for a precious three points, it was clear to all that such a performance is unacceptable for a team with title aspirations. 

“We made several errors during the game, and this caused us to concede four goals,” said Shawal after the game. “We need to be wary of our opponents’ counterattacks, and we must definitely have an improved performance next week.”

An irked Risto was much harsher with his post-match comments. 

“Today was not a good day for us – in fact, this is our worst game this season,” bristled the Serbian. “Against Albirex Niigata (S) (a 3-2 win), we showed so much more passion and energy, and we need to replicate that for other games.”

The Serb found little consolation, even when asked about the continually improving relationship between the Sailors’ talismanic duo of Maxime and Diego. He said: “The two of them played well,  but I think we failed today as a team. We have to play more like a team, and cannot just depend on a few players.”

The Sailors are third in the nine-team SPL standings on 26 points, three adrift of league leaders Tampines Rovers – a team they host next Wednesday (7 June). Albirex are second on 27 points, but with a game in hand on both Tampines and the Sailors.