It was not to be for the Lion City Sailors in their final match of the 2023 season as they fell to a 2-0 defeat to Kitchee SC in their Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) Group F clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday (13 December).
Fresh off clinching the Singapore Cup four days earlier, Aleksandar Ranković’s team could not find a way past their Hong Kong opponents and were ultimately unsuccessful in their bid to set a new record for the maximum number of points a Singaporean team has attained in the ACL group stage.
The Sailors finished in third place with six points, one short of the record they set in their maiden ACL voyage in 2022, while Kitchee finished bottom with four.
Both teams were already out of contention for qualification for the Round of 16, but it was Kitchee who came out of the blocks with more intent and created numerous chances early on.
“We should never be finding reasons why we lost a game, that will take credit away from the opponents. We were nervous at the start and that affected us,” he said.
“We controlled the match at the start of the second half but when that second goal went in, we knew it would be tough.”
After two shots on target from Fernando and Tan Chun Lok in the opening minutes, Kitchee opened the scoring in the 11th minute with Sailors full-back Christopher van Huizen unfortunately putting through his own net while trying to clear a cross.
The Sailors took time to grow into the game, eventually finding their feet in an otherwise uneventful first half.
They started the stronger of both sides after the break, with Shawal Anuar drawing a save from Wang Zhenpeng in the 52th minute after being found by Kodai Tanaka, who made his first start since his successful recovery from an anterior cruciate ligament injury he sustained in March.
The 39-year-old Wang made another crucial stop seven minutes later, tipping over Shawal’s header that was destined for the top corner.
However it was Kitchee who doubled their lead in the 74th minute, with Fernando gliding into the box to slot the ball into the bottom corner.
There was also time for Sailors old boy Kim Shin-wook to come on for Kitchee, with the striker returning to the pitch he scored several goals on and subsequently getting a standing ovation from the home fans.
The 35-year-old scored 24 goals in 35 appearances for the Sailors in 2022, before leaving to join Kitchee earlier this year.
After a grueling season, Ranko expressed the need for a reset as the team heads into the off-season.
“We’ve played so many games especially in the last month, we’ll go on vacation first then see the group of players I have and prepare for next season,” he said.