A first-ever Singapore Premier League (SPL) hat-trick for Kim Shin-wook, an assist each for Maxime Lestienne and Gabriel Quak on their first starts of the season, and a second clean sheet in three outings.
There were several plus points as the Lion City Sailors romped to a convincing 4-0 victory over Balestier Khalsa at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday night (1 April), kick-starting what is lined up to be an important month for the defending SPL champions. The Sailors will play nine matches across two competitions over just 28 days.
Friday’s win was undoubtedly the Sailors’ most complete display of 2022 so far. And while Head Coach Kim Do-hoon derived much satisfaction from the performance, he immediately spotted a key issue to address.
“It was good to see how the players connected with each other and played as a team, but it’s still disappointing that the number of goals didn’t tally with the chances created. A lot of hard work went into creating those chances, so we have to be more clinical – we have to learn to kill off games to make life a lot easier for us,” said the former Ulsan Hyundai man, of the 21 shots that his charges took in the match.
“The most pleasing thing was to see how we were able to keep the ball and move it around – we could break their organisation by making their players go out of positions to press us and create space for us to exploit. That’s something we worked on a lot during training, so it’s good to see it coming off in the game.”
With the loosening of pandemic restrictions and local rapper Akeem Jahat in the house to provide half-time entertainment, the atmosphere was buzzing amongst the Sailors faithful, especially when the team’s lineup was announced before the game.
Nur Adam Abdullah, Gabriel and Maxime were handed their first starts of 2022, while Shin-wook and Pedro Henrique were restored to the starting eleven – with the Brazilian returning from a two-match suspension – as all four Sailors foreign players started a match for the first time this season.
Four players who starred in Singapore’s successful FAS Tri-Nations Series campaign also made the lineup, including Song Ui-young who was deployed in the no. 10 role that saw him shine for the Lions.
The Sailors imposed themselves from the get-go and drew first blood after just seven minutes, with Shin-wook shrewdly freeing himself from Balestier’s Serbian defender Ensar Brunčević before nodding home Shahdan Sulaiman’s outswinging corner.
The early goal gave the champions added impetus as they began to dictate the tempo and become more fluid in possession.
After Hassan Sunny thwarted a couple of Balestier attempts, the Sailors went on to double their advantage on 27 minutes. Maxime’s exquisite left-wing cross took out the entire Tigers defence, with Song proceeding to slot underneath Hairul Syirhan for his first goal of the season.
Kim’s men were relentless and duly made it three on the half-hour mark. Gabriel – who switched flanks with Maxime just moments earlier – strode onto an excellent Hariss Harun ball over the top, before squaring across for Shin-wook to convert from six yards out.
Victory was then wrapped up 10 minutes into the second half, with the 1.98m “Wookie” steering in another header off Diego Lopes’ pinpoint cross – after some great interchange of passes between Maxime and Gabriel – to complete his first Sailors hat-trick.
The Sailors continued to carve out openings, but were unable to add further goals with Maxime going agonisingly close on a few occasions.
The tempo was then disrupted by a flurry of substitutions, but the rejigged Sailors kept their heads in the game as Hariss foiled Kuraba Kondo from going clean through in the dying stages to preserve another valuable clean sheet for the home side.
An accomplished display was a firm indication that things are coming together for the Sailors. The defending champions go top of the table with 10 points from five matches – although Tanjong Pagar United could reclaim the summit if they beat Young Lions on Saturday (2 Apr). But Kim wants his charges to keep their feet on the ground as they play another two SPL games before embarking on their maiden AFC Champions League campaign in mid-April.
“I’ve said a few times before that I was only expecting us to have a full team ready around April, and this performance shows we’re on track. But there is still a lot of room for improvement and I know we can do even better than this,” said the 51-year-old.
“I just want to say a big thank you to all the fans that came down – we’re happy to be able to put up a good show for them – and I hope they continue to give us that extra motivation for our challenges ahead.”