“We didn’t deserve to lose.”

That was the candid assessment of Lion City Sailors Head Coach Aleksandar Ranković after a 2-1 defeat to Bangkok United in their Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) 2023/24 Group F opener. 

It was a sentiment that seemed to be shared by many of the 2,927 spectators at Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday night (20 September). After all, the Sailors had more than given the visitors a run for their money – on a night of continental football graced by the presence of Singapore’s ninth Head of State, President Tharman Shanmugaratnam – and could have taken all three points on another day.

But Ranko’s men paid the price for two lapses in concentration: one from a set-piece, and another from a failure to track the running man in midfield.

“We did our best today, and of course we are sad about the result. We cannot concede easy goals, especially from set-pieces,” Sailors midfielder Diego Lopes said. “In this competition, against the level of players we faced today, you must be 100 percent focused throughout the 90 minutes.

“But overall, I think we did well, and we had several good chances to score. We cannot beat ourselves up over the loss. We’ll just have to take this defeat as a learning experience, and go again in the next game.”

Starting with five at the back, the Sailors’ game plan was clear from the first whistle: be defensively disciplined, keep their tactical shape, and pick their opportunities to hit Bangkok United on the transition.

It worked a treat, as even though Bangkok United dominated possession in the opening stages of the game, they were unable to break through the resolute Sailors’ defensive shape, with goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad barely having anything to do for long periods.

Indeed, it was the home team that appeared more threatening when going forward. 

In the 17th minute, striker Richairo Živković created the first significant chance of the game with a curled effort, forcing Bangkok United goalkeeper Patiwat Khammai to make an exceptional fingertip save.

Just two minutes later, Diego found an opening behind the Bangkok United defence from a throw-in, but couldn’t find the target with his shot from a tight angle.

Diego finally broke the deadlock five minutes later, as he pounced on a loose ball in the box and rifled home a first-time half-volley that nestled into the bottom corner of the net for his second-ever ACL goal. 

The first one came back in the Sailors’ maiden ACL voyage when the Sailors remarkably defeated K League 1 side Daegu FC 3–0 last April. 

While the Sailors were able to comfortably keep Bangkok United at bay for the remainder of the half, the Thai outfit emerged from the break with renewed intent, and looked more threatening from the outset.

Their endeavour eventually paid off in the 52nd minute when a well-delivered corner to the back post found captain Everton, who rose highest to head home the equaliser.

Galvanised by the goal, Bangkok United continued to push forward in search of a second goal.

It took all of 11 minutes for them to find it, as midfielder Thitiphan Puangchan received the ball – with time and space – at the edge of the box, before firing an unstoppable shot into the top corner of the net.

Now needing a goal to rescue something from the game, the Sailors adopted a more attacking approach, and began to put Bangkok United under real pressure.

And the Sailors thought they scored the equaliser in the 71st minute when defender Manuel Herrera López (Súper) headed home from a free-kick. However, the assistant referee flagged Súper for offside – a decision that was upheld following a check by the Video Assistant Referee (VAR).

While the Sailors continued to threaten – with substitute Shawal Anuar coming close to scoring on several occasions – the second goal just would not come for the hosts, as Bangkok United held firm to secure their maiden ACL victory.

Despite the defeat, Ranko insisted there were plenty of positives he could take out from the game.

“’We’re all disappointed with the loss, but I’m proud of my boys because they did a tremendous job in this game,” Ranko declared. “Especially in the first-half, we were tight, and didn’t give Bangkok United many chances.

“They (Bangkok United) have many good, experienced players, but we demonstrated our competitiveness and showed everyone what we’re made of.”

Explaining his decision to go with a back-five, rather than to use the more familiar 4-3-3 formation, Ranko said: “In this type of competition you’re going to need an extra man behind to keep things compact, especially when we lose the ball.

“We knew that teams like Bangkok United would have more of the ball, but that was not a problem for us. Just look at the first-half, we had less possession but still managed to score, and could have made it 2-0 or 3-0 if we took our chances.

“Of course, when we went 2-1 down, I changed it back to our standard 4-3-3 formation as we had to take more risk and throw more players up front. Unfortunately, it was not enough to change the result.”

The Sailors will next take on Balestier Khalsa in the Singapore Cup at the Bishan Stadium next Monday evening (25 September), before returning to ACL action with an away game against Kitchee SC in Hong Kong on 4 October.