On paper, the Lion City Sailors’ final game of the 2023 Singapore Premier League (SPL) season against Geylang International at the Bishan Stadium on Saturday (16 September) appeared to be a dead rubber, at least for the hosts.

After all, the Sailors were already guaranteed to finish second in the league, regardless of the outcome of the match.

But as the famous saying goes, ‘winning is a habit’ – and that is exactly what the Sailors seemed intent on doing, with Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković fielding a strong line-up that included Diego Lopes, Maxime Lestienne, and Hariss Harun.

The game, however, did not quite go according to plan for Ranko’s charges in the first 45 minutes, with the Eagles matching the Sailors for large parts of the half.

Indeed, it was the visiting side that took the lead in the 31st minute when Yushi Yamaya stole in behind the Sailors’ defence to head home from close range.

“I think the obvious reason that we were down one goal is we weren’t at our 100 per cent in the first-half,” Ranko reflected. “The energy that I saw from our last game (a 8-2 victory over Hougang United) was missing, and that is why I made changes for the second half.”

And change Ranko did, as he brought on Lionel Tan and Haiqal Pashia for Maxime and Richairo Živković after the break.

The substitutions injected fresh energy into the Sailors’ play, with Pashia notably shining as a bright spark in the attack.

The 24-year-old came close to scoring the equaliser early in the second half when he flashed a header just wide of the goal.

Pashia went even closer a few minutes later as he beat his marker in the box after being found by Diego, but he could only fire the ball straight at Geylang custodian Hafiz Ahmad.

But the tide had undeniably turned in the Sailors’ favour, and in the 53rd minute, Shawal Anuar rose highest to expertly guide Chris van Huizen’s cross into the net for the equaliser and his 10th goal of the season. 

With the wind in their sails, and egged on by the home support, the Sailors pushed forward relentlessly, and were duly rewarded in the 62nd minute with an outrageous long-range strike from Hami Syahin that left Hafiz grasping at air.

“I’ve been trying long shots the whole season, but they always either go out or are saved. So, I’m really pleased that one finally went in,” mused Hami, who was named the Man-of-the-Match.

With the lead in hand, the Sailors seemed poised to go on and exert control on the game.

But a momentary loss of focus in the 72nd minute saw the Sailors go down to 10 men, as Lionel received his marching orders after being adjudged to have denied a clear goalscoring opportunity.

Rather than letting their heads drop, the Sailors regrouped and remained competitive, putting on a disciplined defensive display while looking to counter.

15-year-old Nathan Mao then came on and gave the Sailors a different element in attack in the final 10 minutes. 

This tactic came close to paying off in the 85th minute when Pashia beat the offside trap, finding himself one-on-one with Hafiz. Unfortunately, his shot narrowly missed the target, striking the post and going out, much to the forward’s frustration.

But Pashia was not to be denied. Five minutes into stoppage time, he was set free down the left by a superb trivela pass from Nathan and, after spotting Hafiz off his line, calmly bent a shot into the back of the net for a well-deserved goal to seal the victory for the Sailors. 

That also meant the 24-year-old scored in successive SPL games for the first time since September 2021.

After the game, Ranko commended his players for the tremendous physical effort they displayed, particularly after they were reduced to 10 men.

“Today, we played with a man less for a good 30 minutes, but you couldn’t really tell which team had a man down,” said Ranko. “That shows the effort they put in, and it’s a testament to all the hard work the players have put in to improving their fitness in training.”

Ranko also believes that the win over Geylang to close out the SPL season on a high will give his side a timely boost, as they now turn their attentions to the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) and Singapore Cup competitions.

“It’s always good to win, it gives us a boost for the matches that are coming up,” Ranko elaborated. “Apart from the first-half today, we’ve played well over the past few games, and I think we now have a good foundation for what’s coming next.”

Hami added: “We’re looking to carry this momentum into the ACL and Singapore Cup. It’s a whole different ball game in the ACL especially, but we’ll go out there to give our best and try to get as many wins as we can.”

The Sailors will next take on Thai outfit Bangkok United in the ACL at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday (20 Sep).