The Lion City Sailors are now just one game away from closing out the 2023 season with silverware, after they secured their spot in the Singapore Cup final with a 6-3 aggregate semi-final win over Tampines Rovers.
Both teams had played out a thrilling 3-3 draw in the first-leg of the semis at Our Tampines Hub on Sunday (3 Dec) evening, which meant it was all to play for when they met again in the second-leg at Bishan Stadium on Wednesday (6 Dec) night.
But while the first-leg was evenly-matched, the second-leg ended up being a straightforward 3-0 victory for a dominant Sailors side who barely gave Gavin Lee’s side a sniff throughout the 90 minutes.
Indeed, Sailors Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković hailed his side’s display against Tampines as “perfect”, as he said: “I’m delighted with the performance today. We played a perfect match, from the beginning to the end, and everyone did well.
“We dominated Tampines all over the pitch, and the only thing that I can maybe be critical of is that we should have scored more goals.”
The Sailors set the tone for the rest of the game as early as the second minute, when M. Anumanthan won the ball in midfield with a strong tackle, before laying it off to Diego Lopes. The Brazilian carried the ball forward before setting Richairo Živković free down the right, and the 27-year-old made no mistake with his finish to give the Sailors the lead.
The bright start seemed to destabilise the visitors, and they were fortunate not to go further behind soon after, as both Richi and Nathan Mao missed two good goalscoring opportunities in the first 10 minutes of the game.
In the 14th minute, Richi broke free of the Tampines defence once more after being set up by Anu, but he could only send his effort straight at goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari from a tight angle.
Syazwan was called into action again five minutes later, as he dove low to save Maxime Lestienne’s effort from range that seemed destined for the bottom corner.
As much as the Tampines defence seemed to be at sixes-and-sevens, the Sailors themselves were playing some beautiful football – this was best encapsulated by a superb one-touch passing move between Richi, Maxime, and Diego in the 39th minute that led to the Brazilian firing a shot that deflected just wide of the goal.
Despite their dominance, however, the Sailors were unable to add to their one-goal lead by half-time.
But any fears that Tampines would come out of the break recharged were put to bed within 10 minutes of the second half, as the Sailors continued to find space in behind the Stags, and could have easily added to their tally but for some errant finishing from Maxime and good goalkeeping by Syazwan.
But the Sailors’ all-important second goal finally came in the 59th minute, when Richi cut past his marker on the left before curling the ball into the bottom corner.
That was the 27-year-old’s 14th goal in 17 appearances in all competitions since joining the Sailors in July during the mid-season transfer window.
Seven minutes later, the Sailors all but wrapped up the win with a third goal, as Diego latched onto Maxime’s through pass before lashing the ball past a rooted Syazwan.
Tampines’ dismal night was made worse in the 89th minute when Shah Shahiran received his marching orders for a second bookable offence, after he hauled back Sailors substitute Shawal Anuar from racing through on goal.
At the end of game, the Sailors had racked up 25 shots to Tampines’ five – a statistic that starkly highlighted their dominance on the night.
“After the first-leg of the semi-final, everyone was unhappy because we knew we didn’t play our game,” reflected Man-of-the-Match Richi. “It was very difficult against Tampines (in the first leg), so we spoke with each other, changed some things, and I think today everyone played well.
“We started today with four defenders, compared to the five in the first-leg. Hariss (Harun) played very well in midfield, and we were good in between the lines. We created a lot of chances and capitalised on their mistakes.”
The Sailors will now take on defending champions Hougang United – who beat Brunei DPMM 3-0 on aggregate in the other semis – in the final at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday (9 Dec) night.
Looking ahead to that match, Ranko said: “I think playing in a cup final is a great way to finish the season. We haven’t had much time to think about our opponents in the final yet, as we were focused on beating Tampines.
“But now, we’re going to work hard to prepare for Hougang, who, as defending champions, will certainly give us a stern test.”