The Lion City Sailors fell to a 3-1 defeat to Brunei DPMM in an exhilarating clash at the Bishan Stadium on Tuesday (11 July) night, with the defeat knocking Aleksandar Ranković and his charges off course in the hunt for the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title. 

But the Sailors head coach was stoic after watching his team put in a battling performance following Bailey Wright’s VAR-enforced 32nd minute sending off on his Sailors debut. 

“Nothing changes,” said Ranko, unflinching. “We still have to win all the games and honestly, we are not in a position to look at our opponents.” 

The defeat meant the Sailors dropped to third in the nine-team SPL table with 39 points, trailing both  Albirex Niigata(S) and Tampines Rovers by two points. Albirex, the Sailors’ next opponents on Sunday (16 July), have a game in hand. 

“We started very poorly in the first half and we conceded very easy goals but I have to give compliments to my team after we got the red card for the way they fought,” said the 44-year-old. 

DPMM took an early lead through skipper Azwan Ali Rahman finding the back of the net in the 9th minute, and continued to cause problems to a Sailors side who asked several questions of their own.

Just seven minutes later, Shawal Anuar regained possession at the top of the DPMM box with a crafty tackle and sent Maxime striding towards goal and pulling DPMM custodian Kristijan Naumovski off his line. The Belgian’s cutback to Diego Lopes at the top of the six yard box was somehow blocked then cleared.

The Sailors carved out several other opportunities in an opening half that could have been made more comfortable than it was, with Hafiz Nor, Shawal and Maxime presented with glorious opportunities to score. But a combination of profligacy and an inspired Naumovski saw the Bruneians hang on to the lead. 

Then came what was perhaps the game-defining moment at Bishan. 

Bailey initially received a yellow card after getting tangled with Hanif Farhan who was running through on goal, then appeared to wrestle him to the ground. But after being called for an on-field review, referee Jansen Foo jogged up to the former Sunderland defender and flashed a straight red instead. 

“In that moment, I didn’t feel it was a red card. The referees had their decision to make and they looked at VAR and I’ve got to live with that,” said a crestfallen Bailey.

“This is a psychological test for me, and I will overcome it.” 

And before the Sailors could settle into their new shape, DPMM capitalised. 

Hakeme Yazid doubled their lead just two minutes later, as he broke free down the left before lashing a crisp grounder past Zharfan Rohaizad at his near post. 

The Sailors had a golden opportunity to change the complexion of the game just before half-time after captain on the night, Hafiz, was adjudged to have been impeded in the DPMM box. But Sailors’ Belgian wizard Maxime uncharacteristically blazed his spot-kick over the bar. 

The home side walked out of the Bishan dressing room and back onto the pitch with a fire in their eyes, and matched that with a battling spirit that delighted the crowd – and half the deficit. 

Adam Swandi headed in a Hafiz cross within six minutes of the restart, and it looked like a spirited comeback was well on the cards. 

But that momentum was halted in the 65th minute as DPMM restored their two-goal cushion courtesy of Angel Martinez. The Sailors pushed till the end with mid-season signing Richairo Živković coming off the bench for his club debut, but the visitors remained resilient and held on till the final whistle.

A visibly distraught Bailey apologised to his team and the fans, then called for a determination to set things right in the remaining six matches.

“Obviously I am extremely disappointed, when you think of a debut, that’s certainly not something I had in mind. It was extremely frustrating for me, but I will learn from today and make sure this never happens again,” said the Australian international.

“We had chances and moments where we had real fight in the second half and we exhibited grit and determination. We gave it a go and it might have been a different result if we had eleven men out there,” added Bailey.

“We have to quickly pick ourselves up and recover and move on because we have another big game coming up soon.”

That big game is Sunday’s clash against Albirex that will be treated like a cup final, and Ranko will have his charges primed and ready to go. 

“We have to prepare well for the next game and of course, we are going to take some things from this game and learn from it,” he said, his brows narrowing. 

“It is going to be totally different against Albirex – and I am looking forward to it.”