As the final whistle sounded at the National Stadium on Wednesday (26 July) night, Lion City Sailors fans rose to their feet, raised their scarves into the air, and painted the Kallang sky with swirls of blue and white.
The Sailors lost 5-1 to Tottenham Hotspur in the Singapore Festival of Football’s Tiger Cup, but won hearts with what was a battling performance in front of over 25,000 under the domed crown jewel of the Singapore Sports Hub.
Aleksandar Ranković’s side gave the English Premier League (EPL) side – that fielded a line-up that included crowd favourites Harry Kane, Son Heung-min as well as Argentina’s World Cup winner Cristian Romero – a scare, taking the lead and holding onto it until the last kick of the first half, before conceding four goals in the second half.
Ranko was satisfied with both the experience that the occasion provided, and the performance that it drew from his charges.
“I think we gained a lot from this game and we experienced how top opposition can play – speed, power, physicality and tactical awareness – differently. This was a great learning opportunity for my team,” said the 44-year-old.
“In the first half, we put up a good fight and I am very pleased about it, and I was happy to see a lot of duels and it was very competitive in both halves,” said Ranko.
Ranko put out a strong starting 11 as he looked to experiment ahead of the Sailors’ upcoming Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) campaign – a total of six foreign players started with Manuel Herrera López (Súper) and Pedro Henrique on either side of mid-season signing Bailey Wright in a three-man backline.
In midfield, former Portugal youth captain Rui Pires started alongside M. Anumanthan who wore the armband for the Sailors.
The match commenced with Spurs having an early chance in the 3rd minute, as Yves Bissouma delivered a delightful pass over the top to Dejan Kulusevski. However, left back Christopher van Huizen put in a well-timed sliding challenge to put the ball out for a corner, thwarting the opportunity.
While the Sailors were under pressure from the Spurs attack from the get go, they stunned the visitors with what was the first meaningful chance on goal in the 14th minute.
Rui, who was playing his first game for the Sailors, intercepted a pass in the middle of the park before finding Maxime Lestienne on the right flank. The Belgian winger delivered a splendid cross to Shawal, who instinctively stuck out a leg to divert the ball past Spurs’ new Italian goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario.
“I think he’ll have trouble sleeping tonight,” quipped Ranko. “That was a great moment for Shawal, considering that they have a central defender (Cristian Romero) who won the World Cup just last December, and he’ll definitely remember this goal.”
Spurs continued to dominate possession and create chances in the first half, with new signing James Maddison coming close but failing to capitalise on a Kulusevski pass. It was a combination of resolute defending and the commanding presence of Zharfan Rohaizad in goal that saw the Sailors hang on to the lead.
One of those chances fell to Son Heung-min at the edge of the box in the 44th minute. In what is now his trademark move, the South Korean talisman cut inside and unleashed a powerful left-footed strike that narrowly dipped dangerously, but narrowly missed the target, landing on the top of the net.
The Sailors weathered the storm and while it looked like they would take a shock lead into the break, Spurs were awarded a penalty. Rui was adjudged to have impeded Pape Matar Sarr in the area, and Harry Kane stepped up to convert the penalty and level the scores with what was the last kick of the half.
Both sides rang the changes after the break, with the Sailors – who had one eye on Monday’s Singapore Premier League (SPL) fixture against Balestier Khalsa – making six changes with the likes of Hariss Harun, Hami Syahin and Abdul Rasaq Akeem entering the fray.
Ange Postecoglou’s men took just three second-half minutes to race ahead.
Giovani Lo Celso made a powerful run into the box, only to be denied by a block from Hariss Harun, but Richarlison was quick to jump on the rebound to put Spurs 2-1 up in the 48th minute.
Four minutes later, a long throw from Ivan Perišić caused chaos in the Sailors’ defence, with Richarlison pouncing on a poor clearance to head home his second of the match.
Spurs continued to press forward, and Lo Celso found the net on 73 minutes to make it 4-1 after Manor Solomon’s cross was deflected onto his path.
Richarlison completed his hat-trick in the dying embers of the fixture, calmly slotting the ball past Sailors’ substitute goalkeeper Adib Azahari who had come on for Zharfan in the 79th minute.
“I think it was a good game. Traditionally (the Sailors) have always been one of the two strong sides in Singapore and it was definitely a worthwhile exercise for us,” said Spurs manager, Postecoglou. “And we got a great reception here in Singapore too.”
Despite watching his team concede four goals in the second half, Ranko came away from the match satisfied.
“I was not disappointed with the second-half performance at all, because I know that we cannot keep this pace for 90 minutes. Even though it was mostly different players who played in the second half, I think they gave their best and I am not disappointed about their performance,” he said.
“I was looking at this game as a learning process and also as a test of things that we can apply in the ACL. I tried a different formation today and I still have other ideas as well, so it is not 100 percent confirmed,” added Ranko who also drew other positives from the game.
“I am very pleased that I can use all of these (foreign) players in the ACL, and I have to respect Pedro, especially because he is coming back after 11 months out injured,” said Ranko.
“He needs some time to build his physical strength back and this game was a great opportunity for it.”
Sailors’ young guns Nathan Mao and Muhammad Nur Asis were also given the opportunity to step onto the field for the final five minutes in an experience that the pair relished.
“It was a good opportunity and I will cherish this experience,” said 15-year-old Nathan. “And despite the short period of time played, I can see their qualities and I know how much more I have to improve to get to their level.”