The Lion City Sailors will face opposition from South Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong in their second foray into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League (ACL). 

This was revealed earlier this afternoon (24 August) following the Group Stage draw for the 2023/24 season of Asia’s flagship club competition which took place in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

The Sailors, who qualified courtesy of finishing as the top-ranked local side in the 2022 Singapore Premier League season, are placed in Group F (East Zone) along with two-time ACL champions and 2022 K League runners-up Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, 2022-23 Thai League 1 runners-up Bangkok United, and 2022-23 Hong Kong champions Kitchee SC. 

The 21st edition of the ACL marks the first time that the competition will be played in an Autumn-Spring calendar, between September 2023 to May 2024 and reverts to the popular home-and-away format for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic. 

It continues in the expanded field of 40 teams first introduced in 2021, with the East and West regions featuring five groups of four teams. The five group winners and the best three runner-ups from each region will advance into the Round of 16.

Group-stage matches will be played between 19 September to 13 December – and will for the first time in the history of the competition, utilise the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) technology. 

Matches from the Round of 16 till the semi-finals take place next February to April, with the two-legged final scheduled for 11 and 18 May 2024. 

Placed in a challenging group, the Sailors will look to build on an encouraging maiden voyage in the ACL last season – where they acquitted themselves well with some assured performances and achieved the best-ever points tally – seven – by a Singapore club in the competition’s group stage. 

They can also count on a squad brimming with European pedigree. Aleksandar Ranković’s side brought in the likes of former Portugal youth captain Rui Pires, ex-Ajax Amsterdam forward Richairo Živković and current Socceroos defender Bailey Wright in mid-season, bolstering a side that already boasts former PSV Eindhoven winger Maxime Lestienne and a host of experienced Singapore internationals.

Sailors vice-captain Hafiz Nor is excited at the prospect of going up against the continent’s elite once again and is confident the team has what it takes to mix it up with the very best. 

“Our performances in the ACL last season have given us the confidence and platform to build on. While we have quite a different team this season, I’ve every confidence in us to do well again and even do better than the previous time,” said the 35-year-old, who is one of the most experienced players in the ranks alongside Hariss Harun. 

“We’ve a good blend of hungry young players eager to prove themselves and experienced seniors who have played at the highest level. The team has been progressing and peaking well to finish the SPL season very strongly. 

“Everyone’s just working so hard to prepare for our second ACL campaign and the target is obvious: to qualify for the Round of 16 for the first time.”