For some 20 minutes at the Bishan Stadium on Thursday (20 July) night, Aleksandar Ranković’s Lion City Sailors looked like they were spinning towards defeat at the hands of a robust Tanjong Pagar United side.

Akram Azman’s 64th minute goal put the Jaguars 2-1 up on the night, and it took a Maxime Lestienne penalty to drag the Sailors back into the game before Shawal Anuar scored to secure all three points. 

While pleased with the hard-fought 3-2 victory, Ranko has demanded improvement in the team’s overall performance, but perhaps more importantly, in his players’ mental approach.

“It is good that we won but this kind of game should not happen especially with the quality that we possess,” said the 44-year-old, after watching his side forced to battle to come from behind.

“When we conceded the first goal, I saw a lot of guys hanging their heads down and that is really something that I want to change in this team. I don’t want to see that in my team even if everything goes wrong. I want my team to be immediately hungry to get back into the game and that is something we should improve on,” said a disappointed Ranko.

“And it is my job to make that a reality.”

The result saw the Sailors narrow the gap to league leaders Albirex Niigata (S) and Tampines Rovers to just two points, but that provided Ranko scant consolation. Tampines have a game in hand over the Sailors, while Albirex have two. 

“I don’t think we should talk about the title race. We should approach every game one step at a time and we have to win everything, then see where we will end.”

The Sailors started the game with real attacking intent, dominating possession right from the kick-off, taking an early lead. 

Diego Lopes forced Tanjong Pagar goalkeeper Fashah Iskandar into a full-stretch dive to keep out his 12th-minute shot, but Maxime was on hand to tap in the rebound to make it 1-0. 

Just six minutes later, Hafiz Nor almost doubled the lead with a powerful shot that was tipped over the bar by Fashah. 

Even this early on, it wasn’t just one-way traffic at Bishan. 

In the 28th minute, Khairul Amri’s long-range shot tested Sailors goalkeeper, Zharfan Rohaizad, before Syukri Bashir’s follow-up somehow went off-target.

In the 33rd minute, Tanjong Pagar was awarded a penalty when skipper Akram was brought down by Hafiz. Syukri then made no mistake from the spot, levelling the score.

“I think we played well in the first 35 minutes and we should have scored a lot more goals. But there was a lack of concentration after that and once Tanjong Pagar equalised, it was tough to open them up once they started to be more compact.

“Their goalkeeper played very well too, big compliments to him because he saved a lot of shots,” said Ranko of Fashah, who was named the Man of the Match.

The second half witnessed a determined Tanjong Pagar side take the lead in the 64th minute through a well-placed shot from Akram that nestled into the bottom corner.

The Sailors pushed forward to salvage the game and were presented with a golden opportunity in the 81st minute when Raihan Rahman was deemed to have kicked out at Maxime inside the penalty area. The Belgian picked himself up to level the scores and set the Sailors back on the hunt for a win.

That was Maxime’s 20th goal of the season, seeing him pull level with Balestier Khalsa’s Ryoya Taniguchi at the top of the SPL scoring charts.

The Sailors intensified their attacks following the equaliser, and in the 86th minute, a pinpoint Adam Swandi cross found Shawal who made no mistake with his header, giving the home side a 3-2 lead that they saw out to the end of the match.

“I am delighted that the younger players and the players who don’t start that often have been stepping up in the recent games. They are really knocking on the door of the first 11,” said Ranko, who drew some positives from the game.

“But overall there are several aspects we must improve on.” 

Balestier are the Sailors’ next SPL assignment, on Monday, 31 July at Bishan Stadium.