One point. That was all the Lion City Sailors needed against Hougang United to guarantee themselves passage into the semi-finals of the Singapore Cup.

And though it proved to be tough going, the Sailors did manage to earn that all-important point with a 1-1 draw at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday evening (25 Nov) to reach the next stage of the competition – as winners of their group, no less.

Just like in the last time out in the Cup when the Sailors defeated Tanjong Pagar United, forward Shawal Anuar came off the bench to rescue the Sailors – courtesy of a 83rd-minute goal to cancel out Dorde Maksimovic’s fifth-minute opener for Hougang. 

With a crucial 2023/24 Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) Group F fixture against Bangkok United on the horizon, Sailors head coach Aleksandar Ranković opted to rest some of his key players, such as captain Hariss Harun, Chris van Huizen and Shawal who were all heavily involved in international duty for Singapore over the last couple of weeks.

Instead, it was a relatively unfamiliar team that took to the pitch, with the likes of midfielder Rusyaidi Salime – making his first-ever start for the Sailors – 15-year-old Nathan Mao, and Haiqal Pashia all starting for Ranko’s side.

Midfielder M Anumanthan was also deployed in a different role on the night, the 29-year-old was charged to marshal the Sailors backline alongside centre-back Lionel Tan.

These changes meant the Sailors needed some time to settle in, but it took just five minutes for Hougang to take the lead. 

A through-ball from Nazrul Nazari was misjudged by Anu, and Cheetahs striker Maksimovic stole in behind the Sailors defence to calmly slot the ball in between the legs of goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud.

The dust had barely settled before the home team nearly doubled their advantage – this time, it was Maksimovic who turned provider, as his cutback found its way to Hazzuwan Halim in the box, but the midfielder’s shot lacked conviction and trickled into the hands of Izwan.

Hougang continued to threaten, and it was Hazzuwan again who came close in the 19th minute with a long-range effort that Izwan did well to tip over the bar.

The subsequent corner saw Hougang defender Naoki Kuriyama rise above the rest to head the ball towards goal. However, it struck the post before being eventually cleared by the Sailors’ defence.

It took 30 minutes before the Sailors had their first meaningful effort on goal. Finding himself with space in the box, Diego Lopes turned and fired a snap shot at goal, but it took a deflection and the ball was comfortably collected by Hougang goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam.

But Hougang, the reigning Singapore Cup champions, continued to look the more dangerous side, and they were awarded a spot-kick in the 33rd minute when Anu was adjudged to have tripped Sahil Suhaimi in the box.

After a lengthy VAR review, however, the decision was overturned, as it was found that Maksimovic had handled the ball in the build-up to the penalty decision.

It was a huge let-off for the Sailors. But it seemed to galvanise them as well, as Ranko’s men started to assert their dominance on the game.

Unsurprisingly, it was the newly-crowned AIA Player of the Year, Maxime Lestienne – Sailors’ captain on the night – who nearly drew the Sailors level on the stroke of half-time with a brilliant effort from outside the box that Zaiful had to claw away at full-stretch.

In a bid to rescue a point, Ranko rang the changes at the break, bringing on both Shawal and Adam Swandi in place of Nathan and Rusyaidi. It seemed to work, as the Sailors continued to put pressure on Marko Kraljević’s charges in the second half.

But the Hougang defence held firm, and chances for either side were far and few between.

Nonetheless, Diego thought he had earned the Sailors a penalty in the 75th minute after being hauled down by Jordan Vestering in the box. Following a VAR review, however, it was deemed that there was not enough in the challenge for a spot-kick to be awarded.

The Sailors survived yet another close call in the 81st minute, as they failed to deal with a cross that somewhat fortuitously found its way to Naoki in the box, but the Japanese snatched at his chance and sent the ball wide.

That miss proved costly for Hougang, as barely a couple of minutes later, Shawal came up with a stupendous header to knock Maxime’s pinpoint free-kick past Man-of-the-Match Zaiful to draw the Sailors level.

Neither side was able to find the winner in the closing stages of the game, but it mattered not, as the draw meant both teams would progress from the group stage – the Sailors finished top of Group B on seven points, while Hougang claimed second spot on four. 

Both Balestier Khalsa and Tanjong Pagar are a point behind, in third and fourth respectively.

Though the Sailors were far from their best on the night, Ranko remained unperturbed, as he attributed their uncharacteristically disjointed display to the changes made to the team.

He said: “Honestly, I knew it would be a tough game because we had a lot of players coming back from National Team duty and were a bit fatigued, so I wanted to rest a couple of guys. Overall, I am satisfied with certain moments of the game, though there were times I felt less pleased.

“Of course, we also knew that we were virtually already through to the semis (of the Singapore Cup). And so, it can be difficult for the players to find motivation, especially when we have a very important game (against Bangkok) coming up.”

When asked how he felt about the prospect of facing either Tampines Rovers or Albirex Niigata (S) in the Singapore Cup semis, Ranko insisted that his Sailors must be fully focused on the crucial ACL game away at Bangkok next Wednesday (29 November).

“This (Singapore Cup) game is finished, so I’m not going to focus on the competition for now…when the semi-finals come along, we’ll prepare for them,” said Ranko. “At this moment, our focus is only on our next game, which is against Bangkok United in the ACL.”