The Lion City Sailors set sail on their 2024/2025 Singapore Premier League (SPL) campaign with a clinical 4-1 victory over Hougang United at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday (10 May) night.

Sailors Head Coach Aleksander Ranković made two changes from the line-up that started last Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Albirex Niigata (S) in the Community Shield, with Adam Swandi and Chris van Huizen coming into the team in place of Song Uiyoung and the suspended Lionel Tan.

Maiden goals in blue for new signings Bart Ramselaar and Obren Kljajić, as well as strikes from Shawal Anuar and Adam, capped off a thrilling SPL opening night for the Sailors and set the pace for their title charge.

Shawal, in particular, was in fine form for the Sailors, as the ex-Cheetah came away from the game with a goal and an assist to continue his strong start to the season.

The 33-year-old struck the opening goal the last time out to set the tone for the Community Shield triumph.

Earlier this week, Ranko made it unequivocally clear that his team would not underestimate Hougang. This was evident from the first whistle, as the Sailors started the game with intent, maintaining possession and creating numerous promising opportunities within the opening minutes.

Bart shone as the Sailors’ primary attacking outlet, with his intelligent runs into the box causing all sorts of confusion among the Hougang defence.

Unsurprisingly, it was Bart who opened the scoring in the 23rd minute, with the former PSV Eindhoven man burying Maxime Lestienne’s cross to make it 1-0 to the Sailors.

The Sailors did not have to wait long to extend their lead. Three minutes later, Shawal controlled Hariss Harun’s lofted pass from midfield with a skillful flick, took it round Hougang defender Ensar Brunčević, and calmly finished past Hougang goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam.

Shawal, who now has two goals in as many games, said, “I’m always looking to give my best every game and trying to provide what the team needs. It’s not easy for me to play up front, but it’s a challenge I enjoy. Every goal I score is a bonus.”

Despite the strong start, the Sailors saw their lead halved in the 34th minute, after the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) ruled that Toni Datković had pushed Hougang forward Hazzuwan Halim in the box.

Hazzuwan brushed himself off to take the spot-kick, and though his initial effort was well saved by Sailors custodian Zharfan Rohaizad, he reacted quickest to tuck home the rebound from close range to give his side a lifeline heading into the break.

But the Sailors quickly thwarted any notion of Marko Kraljević’s side launching a comeback in the second-half, as they scored their all-important third goal in the 59th minute.

Once again, it was Shawal at the heart of the goal, as he threaded a pinpoint through pass for Adam, who coolly placed the ball into the bottom corner.

With a two-goal buffer, the Sailors sought to control the rest of the game and keep Hougang at arms’ length.

The Sailors ultimately put the game to bed in the 88th minute, when Zaiful parried Bart’s volley into the feet of Obren, who smashed the ball into an empty net before wheeling away in celebration of his first goal for the club.

When asked about Obren’s performance, Ranko praised the 20-year-old’s versatility and willingness to adapt.

“He’s such a multi-functional player for us,” Ranko mused. “As you can see, he can play in front, left-back, winger. So, I think he’s adjusted really well to what the team needs.”

Now with an unassailable 4-1 lead, the Sailors handed a debut to 2023 FAS Centre of Excellence Under-21 league top scorer Kian Jared Ghadessy, who came on in the 91st minute alongside M Anumanthan and Nur Muhammad Asis in a triple substitution.

While the Sailors might have made the perfect start to the SPL season with this victory and performance, Ranko was keen to emphasise to his charges that it is crucial they do not rest on their laurels.

“Everybody says that we are favourites (for the SPL), and of course that’s the pressure we have to deal with,” he said. “But it’s a long season, and I want to see consistency (throughout a game), which is exactly what the team has shown today.”

The Sailors will look to maintain their winning momentum when they host Young Lions next Saturday (18 May) at Bishan Stadium in their first home match of the 2024/25 season.