An angry rain pelted Buriram’s Thunder Castle on Saturday (30 April) night, virtually flooding the field of play and forcing an hour-long suspension of proceedings in the Group F Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) fixture between the Lion City Sailors and Daegu FC.

Under the stormy barrage of raindrops, the Sailors’ hopes of becoming the first Singapore club to qualify for the ACL’s last 16 were extinguished – Kim Do-hoon’s men fell 2-1 to the K League 1 side to finish third in Group F.

A sensational Song Ui-young strike had given the Sailors the advantage at half time, but Lee Keun-ho’s header and a Zeca penalty that came either side of the hour-long stoppage due to a waterlogged pitch smothered the Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions’ aspirations to make history. 

Despite the loss and a group-stage exit, there has been plenty for the Sailors to savour on their maiden voyage into Asia’s top club competition. The Sailors acquitted themselves well with some assured performances and achieved the best-ever points tally – seven – by a Singapore club in the ACL group stages. 

“We exceeded our own as well as people’s expectations. There were several doubts coming into this campaign on whether we can compete at this level. Our target was to show that we can be competitive against these higher-ranked teams from top Asian leagues and we showed that,” reflected captain Hariss Harun. 

Hariss and company set a few other records in Buriram: the most wins (two), most clean sheets (two) and most goals scored (eight) by a Singapore club in a single campaign – a solid platform to build on as the club targets a return to the ACL and a further reduction of the gap between them and the cream of the continent. 

“From the way some teams set up against us, it shows that they respect us. Of course we didn’t start too well in our first game against Urawa (Red Diamonds), but the team showed a lot of growth throughout the campaign and the fact that we’re in with a chance (to qualify) till our last game says a lot about the team,” added the 31-year-old. 

The Sailors fell 4-1 and 6-0 to Urawa, but came away with a 3-0 win over Daegu and a 3-2 victory over Chinese side Shandong Taishan. 

“Of course there were some down moments, and we have to acknowledge there’s still a gap in quality and class in some games – that’s something we have to continue to work on and improve on if we qualify for future campaigns.” 

Kim paid tribute to his team’s performance in what was a challenging campaign that saw the Sailors play six games in a space of 16 days even as the majority of the team was fasting during the month of Ramadan.  

He said: “Seeing the amount of effort the players put in during the last three weeks under difficult circumstances – I have more than respect for them. 

“To be honest, there’s still a big gap in terms of the personality, performance, and tempo of our game that we need to show on the pitch, but over the six matches we’ve definitely reduced the gap. 

“Instead of hiding or shying away, the attitude and mentality of the players have become better and they began to show their personality on the pitch. We need to continue to develop ourselves in this manner and not drop our standards when we return to domestic football,” said the man who masterminded Ulsan Hyundai’s 2020 ACL triumph.

Kim’s charges had a decent start to the game, but Daegu settled in and proved their aerial threat, going close with a couple of headers in the first 15 minutes. 

The Sailors wrested control of proceedings and remarkably broke the deadlock in the 26th minute. As the ball fell to him some 30 yards from goal, Song smelled blood and let fly with a missile that sliced through the Buriram air before nestling into the bottom left corner of Oh Seung-hoon’s goal. 

That peach of a strike saw wild celebrations erupt among the pocket of travelling Sailors fans who were acutely aware they could be witnessing history in the making.  With that goal, the third in his maiden campaign, Song did indeed write himself into the country’s sporting history books as the Singaporean with the most ACL goals. 

The Sailors brought the one-goal advantage into the break, but Daegu upped the ante in the second half and restored parity on 54 minutes. Former South Korean international Lee Keun-ho – a half-time substitute – popped up at the back post to knock in Hong Chul’s teasing left-wing cross. 

Kim Shin-wook and Hafiz Nor were then thrown into the fray for the Sailors as the rain came pouring down at the Thunder Castle, resulting in an increasingly unplayable waterlogged pitch. 

The referee eventually stopped play in the 76th minute with the Thunder Castle groundsmen quickly coming on, working tirelessly to get the pitch in order. The game eventually resumed an hour later. 

Four minutes after the restart, Daegu netted the match-deciding goal with Brazilian forward Zeca converting from the spot after Amirul Adli was adjudged to have hauled down Kim Jin-hyuk in the penalty area. 

The Koreans held on to qualify for the ACL’s last 16 for a second straight season. 

The Sailors will now turn their attention to defending their domestic crown, but their first taste of ACL action has made them hungry for a return to the continent’s top table.

“We know the road that we have to take and what we need to do. We’re going to continue to develop in our domestic league and play even better football. Hopefully the Sailors’ name can be back at this top-tier competition very soon,” said Kim. 

Skipper Hariss was in complete agreement, and he looked to the road ahead with optimism.

“The boys have seen for themselves the level that is required to compete at this level. Now we have to focus on defending the league title so that we can get to play in the ACL again and produce bigger performances here,” said Hariss. 

“For us, the only way is forward.”