Trailing 1-0 to Singapore Premier League (SPL) title rivals Albirex Niigata (S) at the Jurong East Stadium on Friday night (18 March), the Lion City Sailors stared defeat in the face – and did not flinch.
Neither did Gabriel Quak.
First, it was his deep cross into the area that led to Kim Shin-wook being tugged down in the area by Albirex defender Tatsuya Sambongi to earn the Sailors a penalty.
Then the 31-year-old took responsibility for the resulting kick, stroking it confidently past Albirex goalkeeper Takahiro Koga with just two minutes left of injury time to rescue a valuable point for the Sailors in a crucial SPL six-pointer.
This was just Gabriel’s second appearance of the season – he came on as a 77th-minute substitute for Iqram Rifqi – as he worked his way back from a shoulder injury sustained in last December’s AFF Suzuki Cup.
“I really like all these high-pressure moments, I had no issues stepping up. I’m just glad the ball hit the back of the net to steal a point for us,” said the Singapore winger, who was last season’s top local scorer with 13 goals.
Sailors toiled hard but found it difficult to break down a resilient Albirex side, with coach Kim Do-hoon glad to see his charges showing the mental fortitude to ensure they at least did not leave Jurong East empty-handed.
“This shows the difference between last year and this. To come back at the end of the match shows the strength and mentality of my boys. I’m not satisfied because we always strive for a victory, but this never-say-die spirit is something that we can definitely build on,” said the 51-year-old.
“As defending champions, we know we need to constantly prove ourselves – it’s not just in matches, but also in training – and I’m grateful that these boys continue to show great attitude in trying to improve.”
With players like Song Ui-young, Saifullah Akbar and Naqiuddin Eunos all unavailable, while main forward Shin-wook was not 100 percent, Kim needed to make a few changes to the lineup that beat Tampines Rovers 1-0 last Sunday.
Amiruldin came in for “Wookie” upfront, while Hafiz Nor and Anaqi Ismit – who was making his senior Sailors debut – were given their first starts of the campaign on the Sailors’ flanks.
As opposed to previous matches, the Sailors had started off the more purposeful of the two sides as they pressed from the front and enjoyed good passages of play. Diego Lopes – starting in successive games for the first time since May 2021 – provided fans a real treat, with his superb close control enabling him to keep the ball under pressure as he dedicated play from the middle of the park.
Hassan Sunny, Hariss Harun, Shahdan Sulaiman and Adam Swandi also turned in performances that drove the Sailors forward even as they trailed Albirex for most of the match.
While the Sailors enjoyed possession and exchanged passes comfortably, clear-cut chances were hard to come by, with Albirex growing into the game towards the closing stages of the first half and looked more dangerous in attack. The hosts duly broke the deadlock just before the break.
As the ball bobbled outside the area after a corner, Daichi Omori seized the opportunity to lash a swerving drive that took a touch off Amirul Adli before swerving past a full-stretch Hassan in the Sailors goal.
At half time, Kim rang the changes with Nur Adam Abdullah coming on to fill in for Tajeli Salamat in an unfamiliar right-back position for his first appearance of the campaign, while Maxime Lestienne replaced Anaqi Ismit on the left.
Haiqal Pashia and Shin-wook were introduced later, before Gabriel Quak joined the fray with 13 minutes to play.
The rejigged Sailors were more threatening in the attacking third, with Adli and Shin-wook both going close before the equaliser eventually came at the death.
Gabriel, who scored an 88th-minute stunner at the same end in a 3-2 defeat back in October 2020, held his nerve to convert the spot-kick to give the boisterous Sailors fans something to cheer about.
The euphoria continued in the stands and even spilled outside the stadium, long after the final whistle had sounded.
The point meant the Sailors now have seven points from four matches, level with Albirex and Tanjong Pagar atop the eight-team SPL standings, before the latter host Geylang International on Saturday evening.
While it has not been the most ideal of starts to the season, the Sailors are taking several positives going into next week’s international break.
“Football’s a game that can change in a split second. Credit goes to every player that played a part in getting this result in the last minute and we’ll continue to work harder for better results for our fans,” said Kim, who was confident that his charges will build on this performance.
Gabriel sang from the same song book.
“Having lost to us in the Community Shield, they wanted a victory badly so conceding a late equaliser to us must have felt like a defeat to them,” he said.
“There’s nothing much to be worried about right now, I rather we start slow and end the season high, and I’m sure we can build on this draw.”