A furious start and a second-half flourish did the trick for the Lion City Sailors on Saturday (6 August) evening as they thumped Balestier Khalsa 4-0 to return to winning ways in the Singapore Premier League (SPL). 

An early Kim Shin-wook penalty conversion was followed up by three goals in seven minutes – Maxime Lestienne, Saifullah Akbar and Song Ui-young the scorers – in the latter stages of the game as the champions went four points clear at the top of the SPL standings, although second-placed Albirex Niigata (S) could narrow the gap against Young Lions next Wednesday. 

In the absence of Hariss Harun and Shahdan Sulaiman who were missing out due to minor knocks, a much-changed Sailors lineup led by Amirul Adli put up a commendable performance that pleased Head Coach Kim Do-hoon. 

“Credit must go to the boys today – several of them haven’t played in a couple of games, but they’re the heroes of the night,” said the 52-year-old. 

“Thank you to the fans as well and I hope we brought them happiness tonight. It’s the weekend before National Day so it’s an important win for all Singaporeans and most importantly, we’re back to winning ways.”

Kim rang the changes in the starting lineup, with Shin-wook one of five players brought in following last Friday’s 4-2 defeat to Albirex and he would put the Sailors ahead after just five minutes. 

After Diego Lopes drew a foul from Madhu Mohana with his trademark pirouette turn, the former Ulsan Hyundai striker confidently dinked his effort down the middle for his 13th goal of the season. 

Shin-wook then went close on another two occasions in the first half but was thwarted by Balestier goalkeeper Hairul Syirhan. 

The Sailors maintained the 1-0 lead till half time and Balestier did grow into the game after the break, but there was to be no breakthrough for the away side. 

Wearing the captain’s armband for the Sailors for the first time, Adli hardly put a foot wrong at the heart of defence and kept the Tigers’ Japanese trio of Ryoya Taniguchi, Kuraba Kondo and Shuhei Hoshino largely at bay. 

Meanwhile Adam Swandi filled the Shahdan-shaped void in the middle of the park perfectly with an all-action display, consistently regaining possession and dictating the tempo. 

A triple substitution was then made in the 69th minute to inject impetus and it made all the difference for the Sailors. 

Faris Ramli made an immediate impact just a minute later as he slipped Maxime through before the latter curled home a neat effort beyond Hairul to double the Sailors’ advantage. 

Saifullah – another sub – then joined in the party as he made a lung-bursting run from midfield to finish off Diego’s perfectly-weighted squared pass to complete a great counter-attacking move in the 72nd minute. 

That was the 23-year-old’s first goal of the season and it came against a side led by his father Akbar Nawas.

“It wasn’t about my dad’s team – what pushed me to make that extra run to score was that I’ve yet to score this season and I knew I needed to add more goals to my game,” he emphasised. 

“As I’ve said in previous interviews, this has not been a smooth year for me but I’m doing everything to get back to form and I’ve been on a good run lately. But I’m not satisfied with just this – I want to do more to help the team retain our SPL title.”

The victory was rounded off on 77 minutes, with Maxime turning provider as he produced an inch-perfect cross across the six-yard box for Song to tap home at the far post. 

There was still time for late drama with Balestier earning a contentious penalty in the 89th minute after Kondo was adjudged to be brought down by Hafiz Nor, but the former’s effort from 12 yards out was denied by Izwan Mahbud – who kept his first Sailors clean sheet in his fourth appearance for the club.

A good all-round display has now given some food for thought for Coach Kim ahead of the Sailors’ next task – an away game against Young Lions next Saturday (13 August). 

“Hariss and Shahdan have played many minutes, so we’ll assess them again before the next match,” said Kim. 

“I have players who proved themselves tonight, I have players who’re hungry to play – whoever is fit and ready will play in the next game.”