In an electrifying encounter at Our Tampines Hub on Friday (4 August), the Lion City Sailors turned in a dominant performance to secure a convincing 5-2 victory over Tampines Rovers in the Singapore Premier League (SPL). 

The result coming off the back of a Maxime Lestienne first-half hat-trick and a quickfire second-half brace by Richairo Živković saw the Sailors strengthen their grip on second spot in the nine-team SPL standings, and keep their faint title hopes alive with just two games left to play. 

The Sailors have 48 points with Tampines on 44. League leaders Albirex Niigata (S) hold a five-point advantage over the Sailors and have a game in hand over both sides.

Speaking after the frenetic encounter, Sailors Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković was effusive in his praise.

“I think it was one of the best first halves that we have played, the only thing we missed in that first half was a fourth goal. I thought we deserved the win for our performance throughout the game,” said Ranko, of his charges’ complete domination of the first period that ended 3-0.  

“I would rather have not conceded a goal but we conceded from two set pieces: a penalty and a corner. We were really very good at dealing with these in previous games, but now we have to get back to the drawing board.”

“Nevertheless, I am very proud of my side for this tough win.”

The match started with a flurry of action with the Sailors quick to impose their style of play, taking just 10 minutes to open the scoring.  

In a Maxime inverted winger masterclass, the Belgian glided in from the right, cut inside, and curled the ball past Tampines custodian Syazwan Buhari from outside the box to make it 1-0.

Maxime would score his second goal of the night just nine minutes later. The 31-year-old intercepted a loose Shuya Yamashita pass in the Tampines half, and instinctively let fly with a 30-yard chip that drew another despairing dive from Syazwan who was caught in no man’s land. 

Maxime would complete his hat-trick in the 36th minute as he slammed the rebound home after his initial lob over Syazwan came back off the post. 

This was the former PSV Eindhoven man’s second hat-trick of the 2023 SPL season, and puts him atop the SPL goal-scorers chart with 23 goals, two ahead of Balestier Khalsa’s Ryoya Taniguchi.

The Stags emerged for the second half with all guns blazing, and hauled themselves back into the game with a 58th-minute goal courtesy of Miloš Zlatković’s header off a corner.

In the 74th minute, Tampines were awarded a penalty when Bailey Wright was adjudged to have blocked Yasir Hanapi’s shot with his arm. Boris Kopitović – who came on at half-time – scored the resulting spot-kick to reduce the deficit to just one goal.

But their joy was short-lived. 

The Sailors halted Tampines growing momentum just three minutes later. Second-half substitute Adam Swandi delivered a perfectly timed ball over the top to Richairo, who raced into the box and slotted past the goalkeeper.

The former Ajax Amsterdam man pulled the rug out from under the Stags’ feet another three minutes later, tapping home from close range after Adam’s attempted shot fell kindly at his feet in the 80th minute. 

“We did a big job today: getting the three points. This gives us some space to breathe in terms of securing second spot, but in this competition you cannot get fooled that you are going to win the games easily,” said Ranko.

“We have two games left to play and they are tough opponents too, so we just have to focus on ourselves, and get the job done.” 

The Sailors will next face Hougang United away at Jalan Besar Stadium on 13 Aug, before closing their 2023 SPL season more than a month later against Geylang International at home on 16 September. 

While the Sailors have a firm grip on second spot, Maxime refused to close the door on his faint hopes of a league title.

“Today was a very important game for us to be second in the league but the objective for the whole season was to be champions. That is very hard now, but we will give everything until the end,” he said.

“Honestly, I don’t care about being the top scorer, my objective is to help the team win games so we can win the title – and now to make sure we finish second. 

“We have two more games and we will continue to give everything.”