There was an eerie calmness about the atmosphere at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday (24 March) night as both the Lion City Sailors and Albirex Niigata (S) warmed up for their crunch Deloitte Women’s Premier League (WPL) fixture.

Though only the second WPL match of the season for both teams, the encounter carried immense weight and anticipation. This was, after all, a showdown between the reigning champions and their determined contenders – the winner of which would gain an early advantage in the title race.

But that calmness dissipated the moment the first whistle blew, as both teams went at each other with a ferocity and intensity befitting of the high-stakes of the match.

Ultimately, though, it was a young Sailors outfit that emerged victorious – and kept their unbeaten record intact – as they secured a 2-1 win over the White Swans.

It was Sailors forward Raeka Ee who stole the headlines, as she continued her impressive start to life in the WPL by scoring both her team’s goals to propel Daniel Ong’s charges to the top of the WPL table.

The Sailors no. 9 now leads the WPL scoring charts with four goals in her first two outings for the club, and Head Coach Daniel had nothing but compliments for the young striker. 

Raeka is a player who is willing to learn. Most importantly, she always applies what she’s learned in training,” said Daniel. “When her teammates give her feedback, she listens and always gives her very best for every training session. She is truly an asset to the team.”

Spurred on by a boisterous crowd, both teams started the game at a frenetic pace, but it was the Sailors who struck the first blow in the 29th minute, as Nur Syazwani Ruzi’s free-kick was spilled by Albirex custodian Nurul Haziqah Haszman, and Raeka reacted quickest to stab the ball home and give the Sailors a 1-0 lead.

Amidst the jubilant celebrations among the Sailors, however, there was also an unmistakable hint of relief on their faces at having taken the lead against a formidable Albirex side which boasted the likes of former Sailors duo Ernie Sulastri Sontaril and Lila Tan.

Two minutes into the second half, 20-year-old Raeka doubled the Sailors’ lead in similar fashion. This time, it was Dorcas Chu – making her first WPL start since recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury in September 2022 – whose attempt on goal was blocked by an onrushing Dhaniyah Qasimah, but Raeka was on hand once again to drive the rebound into the back of the net.

While both her goals were borne out of Albirex’s defensive lapses, Raeka believes her positioning and instinct as a striker was key to her being in the right place at the right time.

“As a striker, you want every chance you can get,” Raeka mused. “But when these chances fall into your hands, you have to seize them, so it’s important to always predict where the ball will end up.

“I feel very happy to be able to get the team the result we worked hard for.”

Albirex did have a golden opportunity to halve the deficit soon after, but experienced Sailors custodian Beatrice Tan and young defender Tia Foong combined well to hoof the ball off the line after a goalmouth scramble.

Unfortunately, Beatrice sustained an injury during the clearance, and shortly after, she had to be substituted off after yet another accidental collision.

This led to a WPL debut for 16-year-old goalkeeper Nur Izairida Shakira, who became the sixth teenager to feature for the Sailors in the women’s top flight in 2024 after being promoted from the club’s Girls Academy in the off-season. Shakira follows in the footsteps of Tyan Foong, Yuvika Suresh, Seri Nurinsyirah, Nadia Nuraffendi and Liyana Rickit.

“It was a thrilling experience especially with the intensity of today’s matchup with Albirex,” shared 16-year-old Shakira. “It was initially a shock (to be called upon). I wasn’t expecting to play, but when Beatrice collided with the post, I knew that I had to come on. I was so nervous but I just prayed for the best.

The support from my teammates really helped to calm my nerves. I also have Coach Daniel to credit; though he’s strict in training, he also motivates me and reminds me to enjoy the game. Making my debut against a powerhouse like Albirex, I made sure to be more commanding in goal and not let the pressure get to me.”

Daniel, a former Sailors Goalkeeping Coach, added, “I am definitely very proud of her (Shakira’s) progression after seeing her nearly everyday for four years. To see her out there today was heartwarming despite the goal. She’s definitely one for the future.”

Unfortunately, Shakira could not mark her WPL debut with a clean sheet, as she was beaten by Mulan Ayliffe’s powerful shot in the 87th minute – the first WPL goal that the Sailors have conceded since August 2023.

The goal gave Kana Kitahara’s side renewed drive in the closing moments of the game, but the Sailors were able to withstand the Albirex onslaught to secure the precious three points.

Shakira credits the Sailors’ fan support for helping the team get over the finish line. She said, “I was nervous because we had already conceded a goal and if we had let another one in, all our hard work would have gone to waste. But the fans and our family in the stands were so loud, it helped all of us to maintain composure and take the three points.”

While acknowledging the strength of this Albirex side, Daniel revealed that he had told his charges before the game to simply focus on playing the way they had been in training.

“Winning against a strong team like Albirex will definitely boost their confidence, and there’s a lot of take away from today’s game,” Daniel explained. “I was especially pleased with how we played out from midfield quicker.

“As a young team, every training session and every game is a learning opportunity for our players and myself. It’s a long process but I have confidence in everyone in the team including the coaching and backroom staff.”

With two wins in two, the Sailors currently lead the WPL standings ahead of Hougang United on goal difference. Both the Sailors and Hougang will face off next on Sunday, 14 April, at Choa Chu Kang Stadium on Matchday 3.