The Lion City Sailors bounced back from an Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) opening Group F defeat to Bangkok United to see off Kitchee SC 2-1 on Wednesday (4 October) night. 

Aleksandar Ranković’s men turned in a brave performance in front of 3,077 fans at the Hong Kong Stadium – including around 50 supporters from Singapore – to pick up all three points to get their ACL campaign back on track. 

Travelling Sailors fans comprised members of The Crew and the Special Operations Team, which was formed by 10 winners of an all-expenses paid trip giveaway in last week’s Sailors’ social media drive.

The contingent made themselves heard even though they were part of the minority, drumming and chanting from the Hong Kong Stadium’s South Stand, before expressing their wild delight at the end.

It was a second consecutive win for Ranko and his charges after a 7-0 victory over Balestier Khalsa in their Group B Singapore Cup opener last Monday (25 September).

It was the perfect way for Ranko’s Sailors to recover from the 2-1 loss to Bangkok on 20 September, as goals from Richairo Živković and Maxime Lestienne helped the Sailors move into third in the Group F standings. 

Bangkok jumped to the top of the standings after they surprised Asian football fans with a 3-2 home win over two-time ACL winners Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in a match also played on Wednesday night (4 Oct). 

Ranko was pleased with how his side represented Singapore throughout the 90 minutes of the match.

“I’m very happy with the performance. We came here to take the three points and that’s exactly what we did,” he said.

“We played a little more offensive today compared to what we managed against Bangkok, but it also had to do with the opponents. We did exactly what we wanted to do tactically.” 

The start of the match was closely contested, but a quick passage of play from back to front saw the Sailors take an early lead in the 14th minute

Three passes was all it took as Rui Pires spread the ball out wide to Christopher van Huizen, whose left-footed cross was diverted by Kitchee skipper Helio Goncalves into Richi’s path. 

The Curaçaon international pounced on the loose ball and sent a first-time finish past Kitchee custodian Paulo Cesar for his first goal in the ACL. 

The goal was Richi’s tenth for the club since joining in July.

Clear-cut chances were few and far between but the Sailors doubled their lead in the 37th minute. 

Maxime was brought down by Kitchee midfielder Ogenyi Onazi with referee Yoshimi Yamashita awarding a free kick outside the box. But the video assistant referee (VAR) overturned the decision and awarded a penalty instead, which Maxime duly dispatched past Cesar. 

Ranko, who held his head in his hands as the Belgian stepped up, exploded in wild celebration with his coaching staff as Maxime gave the Sailors a two-goal cushion.

Diego had a chance to cap off an impressive first-half, but his 40th minute close-range shot came off the post, this after a clever pass from Maxime.

Man-of-the-match Maxime, who has enjoyed a stellar domestic football season that saw him record 25 goals and 21 assists, credited the team for the superb first 45 minutes in Hong Kong.

“We listened to the coach and did what we needed to do. The first half was great for us and we played really well,” said the 31-year-old winger, who missed last week’s Singapore Cup win over Balestier through suspension.

“I’m very happy with the goal, it increases my confidence and I just want to keep on trying my best and make a difference for the team.” 

Kitchee started the second half with higher intensity, searching for a way back into the game, but the Sailors stood firm, sitting deeper to absorb the pressure while looking to capitalise.

The home side had to settle for shots from long range and acute angles, while the Sailors remained organised, sticking to Ranko’s game plan.

But Kitchee finally found their breakthrough in the 87th minute through substitute Jakob Jantscher. The 34-year-old directed a header into the bottom corner of Zharfan Rohaizad’s goal to score a goal that set up a grandstand finish.

But it was too little too late for Kitchee as the Sailors held on for the Singapore side’s first win of this ACL campaign, though not without a nervy finish. Ruslan Mingazov found himself in a prime position to score four minutes into stoppage time, only to see his shot trickle wide of Zharfan’s goal. 

Ranko praised his charges’ stout defending on an important night on the Sailors’ second foray into Asia’s top tier club competition.

“We were very tight defensively. Everybody in the squad gave their 100 percent and that’s one of our strengths, we have a very tightly-knit group of players and they’re eager to work for each other.” he said.

The Sailors will face Tanjong Pagar United next in the Singapore Cup at the Bishan Stadium on 21 October, before jetting off to South Korea to take on Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the ACL four days later.