With his gaze firmly fixed on his charges as they underwent a rigorous training session, Lion City Sailors head coach Aleksandar Ranković cut a serious figure on the hybrid pitch at Mattar Road.

It was two days away from the Sailors’ 2024/25 season-opening game against reigning league champions Albirex Niigata (S) on May 4, and the Serbian was determined not to leave any stone unturned.

After all, the Sailors’ goal for the upcoming season is clear: to challenge and try to win everything domestically – the Community Shield, the Singapore Cup, and importantly, the Singapore Premier League (SPL).

The first step to achieving that dream will come on Saturday night at the Jalan Besar Stadium, with the Sailors hoping to pip the White Swans to the Community Shield.

Despite being the reigning SPL champions, Albirex’s transition during the off-season from a squad predominantly composed of Japanese players to one featuring a majority of local talent has led many to question whether they remain as formidable as before.

But Ranko was quick to dismiss the notion that Albirex are a weakened side, and insisted that his players will have to bring their A-game to beat them.

“They’ve adopted a new setup, but I believe their philosophy and desire for success remain unchanged,” the 45-year-old remarked. “With two consecutive league titles under their belt, we must give them the utmost respect. It’s crucial that we play at our best to overcome them, and we’re determined to deliver a stellar performance for our fans.

“Our aim is to kickstart the new season positively, and to achieve that, we must defeat the defending champions.”

With the benefit of a full pre-season for the first time since taking over the helm at the Sailors last July, Ranko has drilled his players hard for the past couple of months to get them prepared for the long campaign which takes place from May 2024 all the way to May 2025.

Besides two competitive friendlies against Malaysian champions Johor Darul Ta’zim, the Sailors also went on an 11-day training camp in Thailand. There, the team underwent double training sessions on most days, and played a couple of friendly matches against tough Thai opposition.

Having seen up-close the commitment and hard work that his players put in during pre-season, Ranko asserts that his side are ready for the campaign ahead.

“It was a tough pre-season. We demanded a lot from the players, in terms of the load and intensity of training. But no one was complaining; the group was very bonded, and I have to say, I’ve never had a better group of players as a Head Coach,” Ranko declared.

“This spirit and attitude is what will carry us through this season. We worked a lot on things like the way we attack, how we shape up in transition and how we press together as a team. Ultimately, we want to deliver a good attacking style to entertain our fans.”

Apart from the domestic competitions, the Sailors will also be fighting for honours in the inaugural ASEAN Club Championship (also known as the Shopee Cup), as well as the revamped Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League 2 competition.

As such, the Sailors have put together a refreshed roster with increased depth to cope with the demands of the season. Players with European pedigree such as Bart Ramselaar, Toni Datković, and club icon Song Uiyoung have been brought in to complement a sturdy stable of local stars that include Lions skipper Hariss Harun and national team regulars like Shawal Anuar and Hami Syahin.

Reflecting on the roster of players he has available at his disposal, Ranko believes that they have the quality and character to achieve the goals that they have set out for themselves in what will undoubtedly be a gruelling season.

“What we emphasise strongly when we make new signings is their character and personality,” Ranko revealed. “We want guys who can be leaders on and off the pitch, who can pull everyone together.

“Toni, for example, is someone who will go through a brick wall for the team; Bart is a top player who can inspire the young players with his professionalism. And I need not to talk so much about Song – everyone knows what he can offer.

“The players we kept from last season are not just playing at a high level, but are also striving to improve. So overall, I’m very pleased with the squad we have.”

With the Sailors set to fight on four fronts this season, they could potentially play 50 games in all competitions between now and May next year. 

Ranko, however, simply wants his side to take it one game at a time – starting, of course, with the game against Albirex.

He said, “We have big ambitions for the season. But right now, our minds are on the Community Shield. We want to win and set the right tone for what we’re out to achieve. The team is going to give 100 percent and leave everything out there to win the first silverware of the season.”