With two matches left to go in the group stages of the 2023/24 Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) campaign, the Lion City Sailors remain well in the hunt to qualify for the last 16 of Asia’s premier club competition. 

Bangkok United lead Group F with 10 points, while the Sailors are on six points, level with K League giants Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC are in fourth spot. 

The five group winners and three best runners-up from each region progress to the next stage. 

The Sailors’ next task in the ACL will not come any easier, lining up against high-flying Bangkok United away at the Thammasat Stadium tonight (29 November). 

The Bangkok Angels are unbeaten in 15 matches across four competitions this season, currently leading the way in Thai League 1 with seven wins and two draws. 

The Sailors know they will have to mix it up with the best to prove their credentials in this competition, and Hariss Harun and his Sailors have already shown they can, even managing wins against some of the best on the continent.

Buoyant Sailors 

Earlier in November they stunned the region by defeating two-time ACL winners Jeonbuk 2-0 at the Jalan Besar Stadium, courtesy of a Richairo Živković’s brace. 

The win reignited the Sailors’ ambitious bid to become the first Singapore club to qualify for the ACL Round of 16 and that possibility puts a spring in Zharfan Rohaizad’s step. 

“The target is always to create history for not just the club, but also Singapore football,” said the goalkeeper. 

“We’ve given ourselves a great chance with that victory over Jeonbuk, and we need to keep fighting. We’re treating this Bangkok United game like a final: it’s a do-or-die match for us. All the boys are raring to go and we’re here to give them a good fight.”

Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković is equally bullish about his side’s chances despite an enforced change at the heart of the Sailors’ defence: Manuel Herrera López (Súper) is ruled out through suspension. 

“We know what kind of opponent we’re coming up against – Bangkok is not currently top of Group F by chance and that says a lot. We have a lot of respect for them.

“But we’ve also shown throughout this campaign that we’ve been competitive – except for the 3-0 away loss against Jeonbuk – and we have a good group of players, we’ll have somebody to come in to do the job of Súper. 

“We’ve prepared very well as a team and I’m confident of our chances.”

A clean sheet against Jeonbuk meant Zharfan became only the third Singaporean goalkeeper to record a shutout in the ACL – after Shahril Jantan (SAFFC, 2010) and Hassan Sunny (Sailors Class of 2022) – and he is hungry for more, although it will be a hard task against an on-song Bangkok United. 

Totchtawan Sripan’s side have failed to score in only one match this season, and those 14 scoring matches included a brilliant 3-2 scalp of Jeonbuk in early October. 

Bangkok’s goal threat is spread across the entire team. Former Vasco da Gama forward Willen Mota and Swedish-born Palestinian winger Mahmoud Eid are the obvious dangermen, but Thai winger Rungrath Poomchantuek is also a tricky customer who already has two ACL goals this season. 

Centre-back and captain Everton Gonçalves is also a danger in front of goal. He has scored four in all competitions – most off set-piece situations – with one goal coming in the 2-1 win over the Sailors on Matchday One

“That wasn’t nice, to lose on the opening matchday in front of our home fans – so revenge is definitely on our minds,” said Zharfan. 

“The clean sheet against Jeonbuk was one of my biggest achievements in football, no doubt. But my focus is on the bigger picture to help us get the three points, especially in these crucial games. 

“We’ve been training very well in every aspect of the game and Coach Ranko has been drilling us hard to cope with their goal-scoring threats. I know that each and everyone of us is ready to go out there to give our best.”

Slight stutter in Bangkok’s stride

Bangkok has had an impressive season thus far, but have found the going tough in their last couple of matches, dropping points in two 1-1 draws – at home against Kitchee SC in the ACL and Nakhon Pathom United in the Thai League 1 – both times after taking the lead. 

Perhaps compounding matters for the Thai side, influential midfielder Thitiphan Puangchan who netted a scorching winner at Jalan Besar, is ruled out for the foreseeable future after sustaining a serious knee injury against Kitchee in late October. 

The importance that Bangkok has vested in this clash is perhaps clearly illustrated in the decision of Head Coach Totchtawan resting key duo Nitipong Selanon and Suphan Thongsong in last Friday’s (24 Nov) Thai League 1 clash against Nakhon Pathom. 

Nonetheless, the former Thai international is determined to get the win over the Sailors that will ensure they top Group F and secure their first-ever appearance in the ACL Round of 16.  

“We rested the national team players and had some injured players coming back, but we’re all ready to get the win to guarantee our place in the knockout stages. We dropped points in our last two matches, yes, but that’s normal in football. It’s not affecting our team’s confidence and the path that we want to take,” said Totchtawan. 

“Lion City Sailors have momentum on their side and are high in confidence, so we’re not taking them for granted. We’ve analysed their strengths and weaknesses, so we’re ready to take the three points.” 

Right-back Nitipong Selanon, a Thai international who played against several Sailors in Thailand’s 3-1 win over Singapore at Kallang just a week ago along with Thongsong, is well aware of the threat the Sailors pose.

“With the national team, we’ve actually analysed the Lion City Sailors as an opponent so I know they have very good players – two that I can name are the Singapore captain Hariss Harun and no. 7 Shawal Anuar. But I know there are many other good players in this team.”

Frenetic end to 2023 

Having secured their passage into the Singapore Cup semi-finals following the 1-1 draw with Hougang over the weekend, the Sailors are set for a frenetic end to the season. 

Ranko’s charges will have to contend with five matches in a space of 15 days between 29 Nov and 13 Dec, with possibly a first-ever Singapore Cup Final appearance on the cards. 

The Serb wants his charges to be motivated by the prospect of glory, instead of worrying about fatigue. 

“It’s an exciting time for everyone associated with the club and we’ll have to plan carefully on the players’ physical load. But for the players, I think they would rather play a game every three days instead of only having training sessions. I’m sure they’re all up for this.”

With the Sailors’ Bangkok Special Operations Team already settled in Pathum Thani and a number of other members of the Crew also flying up, the Sailors will be backed by a decent away end in Thammasat Stadium tomorrow and Zharfan is ready to repay the fans’ strong show of support. 

“For the fans who’ve come here, we couldn’t be more grateful for your support and it means a lot to us,” said the Singapore international.  

“Your presence will give us the fire and desire to do something on the pitch tomorrow, and we promise to put on a good show and make your time here worthwhile.”