After referee Mooud Bonyadifard blew the full-time whistle at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday (8 November), a deafening roar reverberated around the entire ground as fans applauded the players off the pitch and reveled in the winning atmosphere.
The Lion City Sailors beat South Korean giants Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 2-0 in a crucial Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) 2023/24 Group F clash, and the impact of that result was not lost on anyone present at Jalan Besar.
Richairo Živković’s brace means Aleksandar Ranković’s Sailors sit third in the group with six points after four matches, behind Jeonbuk only on goal difference.
The win revives the Sailors’ hopes of progressing into the next round, with leaders Bangkok United (10 points) and bottom placed Kitchee SC (1 point) playing out a 1-1 draw in the group’s other match on Wednesday.
The winners of each group and three best runners-up from each region advance to the Round of 16.
Against the nine-time K League 1 winners and two-time ACL champions, the Sailors put in a solid all-rounded display in front of a boisterous crowd of 3,562 fans.
The figure included some 100 Team Nila volunteers, as well as German legend and South Korea’s national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who was here on a scouting mission ahead of the Taegeuk Warriors’ World Cup qualifying game against Singapore on 16 November.
It was a much improved result from two weeks ago when Jeonbuk defeated the Sailors 3-0 at the Jeonju World Cup Stadium.
Ranko was satisfied with how his charges bounced back from the loss.
“We gave the perfect response which was really necessary. I want the players to realise the significance of what they’ve done,” the 45-year-old Serb said at the post-match press conference.
Man-of-the-match Richi added: “We played very well from our goalkeeper all the way to the forwards. We executed our game plan well.”
Sailors fans, who will be feeling a sense of déjà vu after defeating fellow South Korean outfit Daegu FC 3-0 in the ACL group stage last year, will have much to cheer about this time round.
This comes after they were unable to witness that victory up close due to Covid-19 restrictions causing matches to be played at a neutral venue in 2022.
Ranko reserved special praise for the fans decked in blue and white, who turned out in droves and never failed to cheer throughout the 90 minutes.
“The supporters were tremendous, they helped us a lot and they’re a part of our club, in the way they support us, even in away games,” he noted.
“I hope we gave them something they could be proud of, and I hope to see at every game we play that we have crowds like this, not only in the ACL but in the league and Singapore Cup as well.”
The Sailors opened the scoring in the 23rd minute. Maxime Lestienne’s cross-field pass found Shawal Anuar, who leaped above his defender and nodded the ball into Richi’s path. The 27-year-old Curaçaon international finished with aplomb, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
The lead was doubled 10 minutes into the second half after Richi played a one-two with Shawal and curled the ball into the corner beyond Jeonbuk goalkeeper Jeong Min Ki’s reach.
Jeonbuk were given a lifeline in the dying stages of the game when Sailors centre-back Manuel Herrera López (Súper) was adjudged to have handled the ball in the area, but Gustavo Henrique Sousa’s penalty was high and wide of Zharfan Rohaizad’s goal.
There was still time for a heartwarming moment at Jalan Besar as striker Kodai Tanaka made his first appearance since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in March as a substitute two minutes into stoppage time.
The Sailors’ organised shape while defending was enough for them to pull off the win in the end, a fact Jeonbuk Head Coach Dan Petrescu credited the home side for.
“The Sailors have good foreign players and also locals who are part of the national team. They defended well for 90 minutes and we couldn’t find space to attack,” said the former Chelsea man.
For the Sailors, the two remaining games in the continental competition will be crucial – they will next take on group leaders Bangkok away on 29 November before hosting Hong Kong champions Kitchee SC on 13 December.
“The main thing we spoke about last week was to at least take something away from this game, so I’m very happy we’re still in the running to progress to the knockout phase,” said Ranko.
But next up for the Sailors is a Singapore Cup Group B clash against Hougang United at Jalan Besar on 21 November. They will be looking to reach the maximum nine points as they aim to top the group.
“First I need to refresh my guys, then we’ll focus on the Cup game before turning our attention to the away game against Bangkok,” said Ranko.