Four nights ago (21 April), the Lion City Sailors trudged off the Buriram City Stadium pitch knowing they should have got much more out of the game.
They laboured to a 0-0 draw with Chinese Super League winners Shandong Taishan in their Group F Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) fixture, failing to break through the Chinese side’s tight defensive lines.
The Sailors swallowed that bitter pill, thrashed things out on the training ground, and turned in a much improved display in Sunday’s (24 April) reverse fixture against the same opposition, emerging 3-2 winners.
Sailors’ Head Coach Kim Do-hoon paid tribute to the hard work his charges put in to take those difficult lessons on board.
“We said after the last match that we need to wake up, and today we created a lot of good moments playing as a team and that’s something that we improved over training the past two days,” he said, speaking after the match at Buriram’s Thunder Castle.
“It’s been difficult with the Muslim boys in the team having to go through a tough schedule in the Ramadan period – credit goes to them and we’re happy to pull off this win.”
Goals from Song Ui-young, Pedro Henrique and Maxime Lestienne meant the Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions picked up their second win to follow up on the 3-0 upset of Daegu a week ago, and the Sailors continue to set new records for Singapore.
They have now amassed the most points and scored the most goals in the ACL group stage with seven in each category – eclipsing the record of four and six respectively achieved by the now-defunct SAFFC in 2010.
More significantly, the result has given renewed belief that the Sailors could become the first side from the Lion City to reach the ACL Round of 16, as they go into the penultimate round of matches in Group F level on points with the big boys of Urawa Red Diamonds and Daegu FC – who drew 0-0 with each other on Sunday.
“The final two matches (against Urawa and Daegu) are going to be tough, but we’re going to play and see where we end up,” said Kim.
He made three changes to the Sailors’ starting eleven, throwing Kim Shin-wook back into the mix after two games on the bench, while handing Nur Adam Abdullah and Haiqal Pashia their first ACL starts.
The Sailors showed more urgency and intensity, and were also more unpredictable in their play with nifty flicks and off-the-ball runs as they searched for gaps in the resolute Shandong defensive wall.
Shin-wook and Song linked up well in the opening half-hour, before the former thought he scored his first ACL goal for the Sailors when he instinctively stuck out a foot to deflect in Diego Lopes’ long-range shot on 32 minutes. However, two-time ACL winner Wookie was harshly adjudged to be in an offside position.
Captain Hariss Harun then went agonisingly close in the 45th minute with his header off Shahdan Sulaiman’s corner taking one bounce off the turf before flying over the bar.
The Sailors piled on the pressure and got their just rewards two minutes into first-half injury time. Pashia whipped in a teasing right-wing cross that Song met with a majestic header, sending the ball past Shandong goalkeeper Cao Zheng.
“I’m very happy to score and honestly it’s all about my team’s hard work that helped me to do so,” said Song. This was his second goal in the ACL group stage, and Song was also named the Man of the Match for the second time.
The Sailors doubled their lead in the 60th minute, with Pedro nodding home a Shahdan corner, and looked like a side that was learning to get comfortable on Asia’s biggest stage.
But there were more lessons in store for Kim’s men – this time about keeping focus.
The Sailors would miss out on a third straight clean sheet in the tournament with Shandong captain Lu Yongtao pulling one back from the spot on 76 minutes after he was tugged back by Hariss in the area. That was the first goal that Hassan Sunny had conceded after 299 minutes of ACL action.
Kim’s men then restored their two-goal cushion six minutes later, with substitute Maxime crisply finishing off Song’s low cross for his first ACL goal.
After spurning some chances to net a fourth, the Sailors allowed Shandong to score a second in the closing stages of the game with Liu Guobao rifling home a fine shot but would hold on for the all-crucial three points.
“It was also a good lesson learnt that if we lose our focus late in the game, we will concede,” said Kim.
“The level of fatigue is building up, but that’s no excuse because it’s the same for all teams. We also have to kill the game off when we’re leading,” said the 2020 ACL winner.
Next up for the Sailors is Urawa on Wednesday (27 April) before closing out the ACL group stages against Daegu on 30 April. and Song is out to ensure successful outings.
“Every game, I want to do my best and score for the team and the supporters. We know how strong Urawa and Daegu are, but at the same time we’re confident to be able to compete with them,” said the 28-year-old.
“We will prepare with the aim of winning six points against them.”