One crucial save. One vital goal. All within the span of three decisive minutes.

And just like that, the Lion City Sailors’ 2023/24 Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) campaign came to a crashing halt. 

Following Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ 2-1 win over Kitchee FC earlier in the day (29 November), both Bangkok United and the Sailors knew exactly what they needed to achieve when they faced each other in front of the 2,093-strong crowd at the Thammasat Stadium.

For the former, a draw would be enough to book them a place in the next round, while a win would ensure they top Group F. The Sailors, on the other hand, had to avoid defeat to keep their hopes in the competition alive.

Nonetheless, Sailors Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković insisted he was proud of his players for the effort they put in on the night.

“It’s a difficult result of course, but I see the way my team played and I’m very proud of them,” said Ranko. “They give their all, and at the end of the game some of them were so tired they couldn’t walk anymore.

“I think our game plan worked perfectly. We made it very difficult for the home team, we didn’t allow them any clear-cut chances, and it hurts that they scored from a free-kick.”

Though the Thai outfit needed only a point to advance from the group stage, it was clear from the first whistle that they were intent on getting all three points, as they pinned the Sailors in their own half in the early stages of the game.

The hosts earned five corners in the first 15 minutes alone, although they failed to capitalise on any of them.

This was in large part due to the Sailors’ disciplined defensive shape, with the likes of Pedro Henrique, Hariss Harun, and Lionel Tan – in for the suspended Manuel Herrera López (Súper) – superbly keeping Totchtawan Sripan’s side at bay.

The first real chance of the game came in the 21st minute, when a superb counter-attack by Bangkok United led to Willen Mota firing a snapshot that was well blocked by Lionel. The loose ball eventually fell to Amadou Soukouna, who tried his luck from range, but this time, it was Rui Pires who came to the rescue as he bravely put his body on the line to deflect the ball out for a corner.

Barring a few other half-chances, that was about as good as it got for the hosts in a cagey first-half that would have left the raucous travelling fans – all 80-odd of them – happier than their Thai counterparts.

However, Bangkok came out in the second half determined to change that, and within two minutes, came close to opening the scoring when Pokkaw A-Nan sent a shot from outside the box just wide of goal.

In the 57th minute, the Sailors created their first significant goal-scoring opportunity through a cleverly executed quick free-kick routine that caught the Bangkok defence off guard and resulted in Maxime Lestienne curling his shot just wide of the post.

Three minutes later, the Bangkok Angels thought they finally had the lead when Thossawat Limwanasathian ghosted in behind the Sailors defence to send a looping header over Zharfan Rohaizad and into the back of the net. 

However, the home team’s celebrations were cut short when a VAR review showed that the midfielder was marginally offside, and the goal was rightfully chalked off.

As the clock ticked down, Bangkok began to commit more men forward to try and get the opening goal, and they very nearly succeeded in the 79th minute through Rungrath Poomchantuek, whose shot from just inside the box was cleared off the line by Pedro.

Then came the three-minute period of the game that ultimately decided the fate of both teams.

The first incident of note occurred in the 83rd minute, when a superb ball from Rui set Shawal Anuar through and bearing down on the Bangkok goal, but goalkeeper Patiwat Khammai spread himself to save the close-range shot and prevent the Sailors from going in front.

Shawal did not know it then, but that save would go on to prove extremely costly for the Sailors.

Just three minutes later, Bangkok were awarded a free-kick just outside the box. Rungrath stepped up confidently, and curled the ball over the Sailors wall and past a rooted Zharfan to give the Thai side the lead.

It was a lead that Bangkok never relinquished, and despite playing eight minutes of additional time, the Sailors simply could not find the crucial equaliser that would have saved their campaign.

The defeat leaves the Sailors – who take on Kitchee in their final ACL group game on 13 December – third in the table on six points, three behind Jeonbuk, and a further four behind Bangkok United.

With Jeonbuk boasting a superior head-to-head record, it means that the Sailors will not be able to overtake the Korean side, and as such, can no longer progress to the next stage of the competition.

“We had our chances…and the one that Shawal had was crucial,” said Ranko. “But I cannot fault him (for not scoring) because he tried his best.”

The Sailors will now turn their attention to Tampines Rovers, who they face this Sunday (3 Dec) evening at Our Tampines Hub in the first-leg of the 2023 Singapore Cup semi-finals.

And Sailors captain Hariss Harun urged his teammates to put this defeat behind them and work towards ending the season on the high by winning the Singapore Cup.

“Losing tonight is a bit harsh on the team as everyone worked hard, but we now have to look forward to the next game,” Hariss declared.

“I think overall the team has done relatively well this season. We are still in the Singapore Cup, so we hope to finish the season on a high in the next two weeks.”