As the final whistle sounded at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday night (27 August), shoulders sagged, and hands immediately went onto hips, as eyes looked down at the turf.
The Lion City Sailors endured a frustrating evening in a 1-1 draw with Hougang United in the Singapore Premier League (SPL), and while they rescued a point late on, the draw seemed to have the feel of a defeat.
The result handed the title initiative back to league leaders Albirex Niigata (S). The Sailors are now five points behind the reigning champions, with a game in hand and just five matches left to play.
On Friday, the Sailors peppered the Hougang goal, chalking a total of 25 shots, but in a lapse of concentration, went behind to a 51st minute Anders Aplin header – Hougang’s only shot on target on the night.
“After the game, the coach told us that if we want to be champions, we have to overcome this tendency of giving away soft goals,” said Faris Ramli. “I cannot say we didn’t defend well during the game – we did – but that one moment, that one lapse, cost us the three points.
“We really cannot afford to keep conceding cheap goals and we know that. We just need to get back on the training ground, work even harder and try to defend better as a team,” added the 29-year-old.
Hougang clearly set up shop to pack their backline and limit the space, and the Sailors were unable to find clear inroads with Croatian hot shot Stipe Plazibat often tightly marked whenever he entered the Cheetahs’ box.
Early into the second half, Kim Do-hoon’s men were hit with a Hougang sucker punch. Kaishu Yamazaki’s deep free-kick into the area found Aplin, who jumped uncontested to nod the visitors ahead.
The Sailors rallied after going behind, with the introduction of Hafiz Nor – who replaced Saifullah Akbar – proving to be an inspired move, with the winger making an impact just four minutes after coming on.
Charging down the right flank, the 33-year-old gave Yamazaki the slip, then bamboozled Aplin before putting in a tantalizing cross for Stipe to head home the equaliser.
But like Faris, Hafiz was gutted that the Sailors did not get the victory they were gunning for.
“Watching the game from the bench, I couldn’t wait to come on, I knew I could do something,” said the Singapore international. “I gave it my all and followed the coach’s instructions to just attack defenders head-on.
“I’m happy that my efforts paid off with an assist, but it’s really frustrating to not get a win.”
The Sailors piled on the pressure late in the game, and Kim’s charges almost found a way past the resolute Hougang defence deep into injury time. First, Jorge Fellipe’s goal bound header was denied by a top-drawer save by Izwan Mahbud.
Then seconds later, Faris was denied what could have been a winner against his old employers. His low drive looked set to nestle in the bottom left corner, but ex-teammate Nazrul Nazari appeared from nowhere to clear off the line.
“It was nice to see familiar faces and old friends again, but once we stepped onto the pitch we understood the need to maintain a distance during the game – it’s work,” said Faris. “Also it was such an important game for my team that I didn’t focus on the fact that I was playing against my old club. I just wanted to get the victory for us, but it didn’t happen.
“I guess Nazrul is someone who quite understands my play, and he probably knew where I was going to shoot,” rued the 2019 SPL Player of the Year. We tried everything and gave our all, but sometimes things just don’t go our way and the ball just doesn’t go in.”
Despite the disappointing result, the fate of the SPL trophy still lies in Sailors’ hands. The equation remains the same: if the Sailors can win their final five games – which includes a crunch clash against Albirex on September 17 – they will be crowned league champions.
Faris has seen enough positives from the team to believe that the Sailors will be able to last the distance.
“We’ve been improving our understanding as a team. You can see from the way we move together and cover each other during games,” he explained. “As long as we continue in this manner and listen to Coach’s instructions, there will be good things for us at the end of the season.”
As for Hafiz, the return of fans – up to 1,000 fans are now allowed at SPL matches – is something he believes will give players an extra push going into the business end of the season, and perhaps even spur the Sailors on to break the six-year SPL dominance of foreign teams, Albirex and Brunei’s DPMM FC.
“There was a fantastic atmosphere at Jalan Besar tonight and it’s so nice to see all the fans coming down to support us,” he said. “They gave us that extra boost, especially when we have to chase a game.
“Hopefully we continue to see such healthy attendances at games to give us further motivation. We really want to be the first local team to win the SPL after so many years.”