There was a contender for goal of the season, robust challenges and a spirited battle till the final whistle. But all that was still not enough for the Lion City Sailors who fell 2-1 to Tampines Rovers on Saturday (10 September). 

The Singapore Premier League (SPL) match at Our Tampines Hub (OTH) was the Sailors’ second loss on the trot – following the previous week’s 3-1 defeat to Geylang International – overshadowing what was a fantastic August for the Sailors. 

The Sailors scored 30 goals en route to four wins last month, but last night’s loss saw interim Head Coach Luka Lalić call for his charges to take a long hard look in the mirror. 

“Similar to the loss to Geylang, we made easy, silly mistakes, lost the ball and let them score twice. If we make such mistakes, and also when you miss opportunities of your own, you cannot expect to win,” he said. 

The result saw Albirex Niigata (S) knock the Sailors off the top of the eight-team SPL standings after the Japanese side overcame an early scare to come from behind and beat Young Lions 2-1 on the same night. 

Albirex are on 54 points – three ahead of the second-placed Sailors – with just four games left to play, including a crucial six-pointer between the two title-chasing sides at the Jalan Besar Stadium on 7 October. 

“I asked the boys to take two days off for self-reflection, and we go back to work on Tuesday.”

It was an unfamiliar Sailors lineup that walked out at OTH. Captain Hariss Harun and Hafiz Nor were suspended, and with Pedro Henrique and Kim Shin-wook out injured, the Sailors were forced to improvise. 

Midfielder M Anumanthan and left-back Nur Adam Abdullah were deployed as part of a three-man central defence alongside vice-captain Amirul Adli.

Tampines took the lead in the 55th minute of play, with Taufik Suparno nicking the ball off Anu in the Sailors’ box and laying it on a plate for Boris Kopitovic to prod home.

The lead lasted for just one minute, with substitute Maxime Lestienne scoring a goal that drew gasps from the OTH stands. The Belgian swung his left foot as Adam Swandi’s pass reached him at the top of the Tampines box, and as if tapped by a magic wand, the ball swerved in the Tampines sky, pinged the crossbar then kissed the post before nestling in the bottom of Syazwan Buhari’s goal. 

Zehrudin Mehmedovic capped off a frenetic four minutes at OTH with a curling freekick that went in off the bar in the 58th minute, to help Tampines regain a lead they held onto despite the Sailors throwing everything at the Stags in the remainder of the match. 

“The pressure has been on us for some time, and now it will switch to Albirex, and it is up to us to chase them,” said Luka, whose charges will face Young Lions, Balestier Khalsa, Albirex then Tanjong Pagar United in their final four SPL fixtures. 

“The title race is not over – for me that match against Albirex will decide where the title goes.”