Despite the departure of Aurelio Vidmar, the Lion City Sailors continued their superb form in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) under the tutelage of interim head coach Robin Chitrakar, registering three wins in as many outings in May.
The Sailors started out with a hard fought 2-1 win over Geylang International. They then came from behind to beat Tanjong Pagar United 3-1, before closing out the month with a 1-0 victory over the Young Lions.
Here, we round up the major talking points from the Sailors’ three successful outings…
The ability to grind out wins
With the sheer amount of quality at their disposal, there are naturally huge expectations placed upon the Sailors. However, to expect them to show up and steamroll their opponents in every game is simply unrealistic.
To nullify the Sailors’ attacking flair, Geylang, Tanjong Pagar and Young Lions all opted to adopt a defensive approach – sit back, stay compact, and hit on the counter.
Facing such a low-block can be frustrating. But the Sailors remained calm and patient as they searched for a way to break down their opponents.
And ultimately, the talent within the Sailors’ ranks proved decisive.
Against Geylang, the Sailors found themselves being denied time and again by solid defending and an exceptionally good performance by debutant keeper Sanders Saurajen, but eventually came good via Saifullah Akbar’s wonderfully-struck shot from outside the area.
The Jaguars adopted a similar soak-and-strike approach to great effect, and even managed to grab a shock lead against the Sailors. Instead of pressing the panic button, however, Robin’s charges simply upped the tempo of their game.
It took eight minutes for the Sailors to find the equaliser through Jorge Fellipe’s header, and another four more minutes before Gabriel Quak gave his team the lead with a long-range strike. Diego Lopes wrapped up the victory for the Sailors 10 minutes from time with a header from five yards out.
And while the Sailors were also unable to find their rhythm against a gritty Young Lions side, they did create enough chances to win the game by a bigger margin, but were denied by a combination of the woodwork and some excellent goalkeeping.
In the end, it took a sublime free-kick from Shahdan to decide the game and secure all three points for the Sailors – yet another example of how talent can prove decisive in tight games.
The ability to break down stubborn teams and secure crucial points is a quality that will serve the Sailors well in what is proving to be yet another tight race for the title in the SPL.
Shahdan serving up a reminder of his influence
Given the wide array of attacking stars that the Sailors boast, there is perhaps a tendency for fans to overlook the contributions of those who deployed in the more defensive roles.
Shahdan, who usually plays at the base of the Sailors midfield, is one such player.
An accomplished trequartista, Shahdan not only provides creativity for the Sailors from deep, but is also often the player tasked with dictating the tempo of the game. It helps as well that the 33-year-old has a well-honed knack for picking out the right pass at the right moment.
Take Saifullah’s goal against Geylang for example. When the ball fell to Shahdan some 30 yards from goal, he could have easily attempted a shot, and no one would have faulted him. Instead, after assessing his options, he laid the ball off for Saifullah who was in a better position to take aim.
Saifullah duly obliged, and scored what proved to be the winning goal against the Eagles.
But the most obvious strength of Shahdan lies in his well-renowned set-piece deliveries. Apart from the aforementioned free-kick goal against the Young Lions, Shahdan also provided an assist for Jorge with a pinpoint corner kick in the Sailors’ win over Tanjong Pagar.
In all, Shahdan recorded one goal and two assists in the month of May – an especially timely reminder of his value to the team with national teammate Hariss Harun set to join Sailors in June.
Familiarity leads to greater understanding
After a mixed start to the season, the Sailors have steadied the ship and are enjoying their best run of form with six straight wins – it is the longest run of wins the Sailors have recorded since their official inception last year.
This is largely because the Sailors have been able to field a settled starting XI. Jorge and Amirul Adli have formed a sturdy centre-back partnership, while Saifullah and Shahdan have worked well in tandem supporting each other in the middle of the park.
In the attacking third, Gabriel Quak and Diego Lopes appear to enjoy playing alongside each other. Both of them have also developed a good understanding with chief striker Stipe Plazibat.
And should the Sailors need an injection of inspiration, they have plenty of game-changing options on the bench, including the likes of Faris Ramli, Adam Swandi and Song Ui-Young – experienced players who can seamlessly slot into the team whenever needed.
Coach Robin has also managed to ensure that the key values and playing principles from Coach Aurelio’s tenure remain in place, which means the players are all fully aware of what is expected of them. The impending arrival of Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League winner Kim Do-hoon as the Sailors new head coach in June will only serve to provide a boost to the entire squad.
These factors set the Sailors up nicely for their next assignment – the AFC Cup Group H matches, which are scheduled from June 29 to July 5. The Sailors are due to face Vietnamese outfit Saigon FC, Indonesia’s Persipura Jayapura, as well as Malaysian side Kedah Darul Aman at the Singapore National Stadium.
With one game set to be played every three days, the Sailors’ winning mentality and mental fortitude will have to come to the fore to secure qualification from the group stage.
But if the Sailors’ recent performances are anything to go by, there is every chance of them progressing to the next stage.
Till then, ahoy Sailors!