In a battle between the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title challengers on Friday (31 March) night, the Lion City Sailors were edged out 4-3 by Tampines Rovers at Our Tampines Hub. 

The result saw Risto Vidaković’s side fall to their second defeat of the 2023 SPL season, but the Serbian was nevertheless encouraged by the display of his charges. 

The players did very well and I cannot fault their effort today. We managed to fight up until the final whistle and while we made mistakes, I cannot be more proud of them,” Risto said after the thrilling contest. 

“The good thing is we still have more games to play and we can only get better from here.”

The Sailors got off to a dream start through Shawal Anuar’s first Sailors goal just eight minutes in. Getting onto the end of a well-weighted Maxime Lestienne cross, the new signing who was making his first start of the season, calmly diverted the ball past Syazwan Buhari.

But the game would turn in the favour of the hosts after Yasir Hanapi and Kyoga Nakamura struck one each in the space of 10 first-half minutes. 

Former Sailor Faris Ramli further extended Tampines’ lead with an emphatic finish on 50 minutes, before the deficit was reduced briefly six minutes later when Glenn Kweh put the ball into his own net. 

There was still time for more goals, with a header from substitute Taufik Suparno restoring Tampines’ two-goal cushion in the 72nd minute. 

Defender Manuel ‘Supér’ Herrera then pulled one back deep into injury time by netting his first goal since joining in mid-March, but it was not to be as Tampines hung on for the three points. 

Said Risto: “We started well and tried to make Tampines uncomfortable by pressing them high up the pitch. However, the difference between the two sides was that while the Tampines team have been playing together for a number of years and showed understanding on the pitch, we are a new team still trying to gel.

“There are areas where we need to improve on and there is certainly a lot of work ahead of us.” 

There was some optimism for the future, with Sailors fans getting another glimpse into the pipeline of talent coming through the club’s Academy as forward Nathan Mao came on for Shawal in the 90th minute. 

Nathan became the SPL’s youngest ever debutant at 15 years and 5 days old – surpassing the previous record (15 years and 239 days) held by Young Lions defender Raoul Suhaimi. 

While Risto was pleased with the prospect of a steady stream of talent flowing from the Academy and into the first team at Mattar Road, he turned his attention to the more pressing matter at hand. He called for his charges to bounce back stronger as they prepare to face Hougang United in their next SPL fixture at Jalan Besar Stadium on 10 April.

“We need to reflect on what happened during the match and look at ourselves in the mirror,” he said. 

“We have to stick together as a team, rest and regroup, then push forward and think about what we need to do against Hougang in our next game.”