They were made to sweat towards the end, but the Lion City Sailors hung on to clinch a crucial 2-1 victory over Tanjong Pagar United in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) on Friday night (20 August).

The three points earned at the Jurong East Stadium meant the Sailors leapfrogged Albirex Niigata (S) to go top of the league on virtue of a better goal difference, although the White Swans could reclaim the summit when they visit Young Lions on Sunday.

Tanjong Pagar were a potential banana skin for the title-chasing Sailors, with the Jaguars picking up the most points (10 from a possible 15) amongst the eight SPL sides since the league restarted in mid-July.

And true to form, victory did not come easy for Kim Do-hoon’s men.

With the Jaguars deploying a strong three-man backline of Shakir Hamzah, Delwinder Singh and Faritz Hameed, the Sailors were unable to find real inroads into the penalty area for the majority of the first half.

It took something special to break the deadlock and it was Haiqal Pashia who came up with a moment of magic two minutes before half time.

With Faritz’s stray header off Faris Ramli’s cross falling nicely into his path, Pashia needed no second invitations as he bent a gorgeous effort into the top corner from 25 yards out, for his first-ever Sailors goal.

Pashia revealed that goal was the fruit of hard work on the training ground.

“I’ve been practicing a lot with Coach Kim during training and he always emphasises shooting well with the correct technique to bend the ball,” said the 22-year-old. “He was an experienced national player who played for South Korea at the World Cup and he still has a great shot in him (at age 51) and it’s great to be able to learn from him.”

The goal was Pashia’s first since April 2019, when he was a Young Lions player.

“It feels so good to score after so long and I really needed that – in the past few months, I’ve struggled a lot in terms of scoring and being composed in front of goal,” said a candid Pashia. “So this goal definitely gives me the morale booster for me to get on the scoresheet more often.”

He acknowledged he “didn’t do too well” in the first half of the season, but Pashia is now rediscovering his confidence and credits Kim for bringing the best out of him.

“I was afraid to make mistakes during games and my confidence was really down,” recalled the National Under-22 player. “But Coach Kim is a very understanding coach. He talks to each and every one of us individually to understand our issues and make sure we’re good – he’s always helping us and pushing us to develop into better players.

“Now I feel I can express myself more on the pitch and I’m happy to contribute to the team by scoring.”

Pashia’s goal set the platform for a second straight Sailors victory as they doubled their advantage just 10 minutes into the second half. Brazilian centre-back Jorge Fellipe marked his return from suspension with a poacher’s goal from six yards out, this after Stipe Plazibat had knocked on a Shahdan Sulaiman free kick into his path.

Jorge was just as effective in defence, dominating the aerial exchanges with his 1.9 meter frame. Lining up alongside Hariss Harun at the heart of defence, he was part of an aggressive back four that also featured combative full-backs Nur Adam Abdullah and Aqhari Abdullah.

The tactical move by Kim to combat the Jaguars’ powerful frontline was one that worked a treat according to Nur Adam.

“We all know Tanjong Pagar has really big and dangerous players upfront like Luiz Junior and Reo Nishiguchi, with Blake Ricciuto supporting them from deep,” said the 20-year-old, who put up yet another buccaneering display on the left side of defence.

“They tried to play the long ball in behind us a few times, but we did very well to control those situations. It really helps to have the height and aggression at the back against a team who plays in this manner.”

The Sailors backline would ultimately be breached 14 minutes from time through a stunning Junior free-kick, as Kim’s charges had to hold off a late barrage from the Jaguars.

Nur Adam admitted there were some jangling nerves towards the end, but the Sailors came through with the three points to take another significant step to their first SPL title.

“It was annoying to concede that goal and it put us under a bit of pressure,” he explained. “But the whole team rallied together to complete the job. The attackers dropped back to help the defence and that’s how we managed to hold on.”

The young full-back acknowledged that this was not the prettiest display by the Sailors’ own high standards, but he kept his eyes trained on the bigger picture.

“Yes, we were not able to make good counter-attacks like in the previous game against Tampines Rovers, but the most important thing is the three points, and we got that,” said Nur Adam.

If the Sailors win their final six games – that includes a clash against Albirex on 17 September – they will be crowned SPL champions for the first time.

“We’re now top of the table now, but that doesn’t matter. What we want is to finish first at the end of the season,” said Nur Adam.

“We’re in control of our own destiny, so we just need to keep this momentum going and win every game from now on.”