As the final whistle sounded at the Bishan Stadium on Sunday (21 May), there were hugs and high-fives amongst the 11 Lion City Sailors on the pitch, even a few who fell to their knees.
Chants of “Let’s Go, Sailors” floated up into the sky, propelled by blue-and-white scarves spinning and waving in the Bishan stands.
These jubilant post-match scenes came after Risto Vidaković’s Sailors dug deep into their reserves to come from a two-goal first-half deficit to claim a much-needed 3-2 win over Albirex Niigata (S) in the Singapore Premier League (SPL).
Risto was delighted with his changes’ ability to bounce back from a sluggish first-half display to find a steely resolve and take all three points – a facet the Sailors Head Coach believes augurs well for the rest of the season.
“We didn’t play well in the first half and missed some chances, and everyone had their heads down. It was a cemetery inside the locker room at half-time,” said the Serbian, who paid tribute to the character shown by his players.
“Football is a game of 90 minutes and we need to stay focused over the course of it. We knew that if we scored one goal quickly, we could turn the result around, and that’s basically what happened.
“I’m really proud of the players. They played their best and never gave up.”
The result means the Sailors stay well in the hunt for the SPL title – they are now just one point off second-placed Albirex and three behind Tampines Rovers who lead the nine-team SPL standings.
But 12 minutes into the match at Bishan, it looked like a completely different story was unravelling.
After a disappointing 3-3 draw with Brunei DPMM a week ago on 13 May, the Sailors were looking to bounce back but Albirex stunned the home crowd by racing to a two-goal lead midway through the first half.
Nur Adam Abdullah unfortunately netted an own goal while trying to clear Seia Kunori’s header in the 13th minute, and 12 minutes later, Tadanari Lee stuck out a leg to divert home Kaisei Ogawa’s free-kick to put Albirex 2-0 up.
The Sailors then had goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad to thank for keeping the men in white-and-blue in the game. He pulled off a superb reaction save to deny Tadanari from point-blank range in first-half stoppage time.
Half-time allowed Risto’s men to change things around – with Bernie Ibini-Isei replaced by Abdul Rasaq Akeem while Hafiz Nor came in at right-back for Zulqarnaen Suzliman.
The changes appeared to bring more balance to the team, and the Sailors began to show more desire and aggression to press higher up the pitch – with Brazilian midfielder Diego Lopes hassling Albirex midfielders to win the ball.
Things started to flow in the second half, with Maxime Lestienne combining expertly with Diego to work his way into the danger area. The latter then latched on to Shawal Anuar’s cut-back from the right flank to slot home to halve the deficit in the 49th minute.
The Sailors rode on to the momentum and made it 2-2 four minutes later, as Maxime’s pinpoint cross eluded the Albirex defence and found Shawal, who slammed home at the far post.
Substitute Riku Fukashiro thought he had restored Albirex’s advantage in the 63rd minute, but an acrobatic goal-line clearance from Hafiz Nor on his 70th appearance for the Sailors kept the score level.
The Sailors continued to dominate and completed the comeback in the 75th minute.
After an excellent cross from Maxime, Rasaq connected with a sweet volley that flew past Hassan Sunny to make it 3-2 and win the Sailors the game.
The scorer of the match-winning goal, however, was modest about his contributions to the team.
“The team worked very hard today to claim the three points – we were working hard the whole week too – and Albirex is not an easy team to play against. I am happy that I played my best and contributed to the team’s win,” said the 21-year-old.
“However, we cannot be complacent, and we must carry this confidence to the rest of the games as well.”
This drive for improvement is exactly what Risto is asking for.
“We cannot stay stagnant, we need to work hard to improve our team chemistry further and see how we progress even more as a team – but it is great to know that we can show character in tough situations,” said the 54-year-old.
“It’s not just about scoring goals. We want to be more composed on the ball, know how to release it quicker, circulate it, and most importantly, play beautiful football for our fans to enjoy.
“It was as if we waited for the fans to come in with the cheers to pick up our performance,” said Risto, chuckling. “But I have to say the support from them helped to bring us to a different level, they really are our 12th player.”
The Sailors’ next SPL game will see them take on Balestier Khalsa at the Bishan Stadium next Thursday (1 June).