Lion City Sailors get favourable AFC Champions League draw, aim to show they can be ‘competitive’
The Lion City Sailors will fancy their chances of a historic place in the AFC Champions League knockout rounds after they were on Thursday drawn in Group F alongside Korean League 1 runners-up Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, Thai League 1 runners-up Bangkok United and Hong Kong Premier League champions Kitchee.
The home-and-away rounds run from Sept 18 to Dec 13 with 40 teams split into 10 groups, divided equally into the east and west regions. The 10 group winners plus three best runners-up from each region progress to the round of 16.
Sailors coach Aleksandar Rankovic said: “We aim to keep raising the bar, and that means improvements across all key facets, from physicality to fitness, as well as tactical understanding and discipline to carry out our game plan.
“If we can get this right, results will take care of themselves. What we do want to prove is that we can be competitive at the level of the best clubs in Asia now, and our long-term goal is to be doing this consistently.”
The Saudi Pro League, which has hogged headlines after signing several big names, have four clubs.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr are in Group E with Iran’s Persepolis, Qatar’s Al-Duhail and Tajikistan’s Istiklol, Neymar will travel with Al-Hilal to Iran’s Nassaji Mazandaran, India’s Mumbai City and Uzbekistan’s Navbahor in Group D, while Karim Benzema’s Al-Ittihad are in Group C with Iran’s Sepahan, Iraq’s Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya and Uzbekistan’s AGMK.
The Sailors performed creditably in their Champions League debut in 2022, beating South Korea’s Daegu FC once and claiming four points against China’s Shandong Taishan to finish third in a group that also featured eventual champions Urawa Red Diamonds from Japan.
Sailors skipper Hariss Harun said: “It was clear that if we can keep our focus and raise intensity levels for the entire 90 minutes, we are competitive at the Champions League level. The key takeaway from that was the headspace that we need to be in to do this across the whole match, and the whole campaign.
“The last campaign was a bit different – it was a tournament format in a centralised location – while this time around we will have a bit more time between matches to reflect on what happened and how we performed. I’m optimistic that with lessons from last year, we will be able to show improvements in performance and hopefully results too.”
An interesting Group F subplot is how former South Korea captain Kim Shin-wook could play against his former clubs Jeonbuk and the Sailors. However, he has not scored for Kitchee in seven games.
Hariss noted: “We have good individual campaigns from various boys such as Maxime (Lestienne) with his goals and assists, to Abdul Rasaq (Akeem), Mamat (Zulqarnaen Suzliman) and Chris (van Huizen), and that’s great to see.
“Hopefully we are able to leverage all this and bring a collective momentum into the Champions League and Singapore Cup.”
His team are in Group B of the Singapore Cup alongside defending champions Hougang United, Balestier Khalsa and Tanjong Pagar United. Group A comprises Singapore Premier League champions Albirex Niigata, Tampines Rovers, Geylang International, Brunei DPMM and Young Lions.
The group matches run Sept 24 to Nov 26 with the top two advancing to the semi-finals in early December. The final is on Dec 9.
Despite finishing a disappointing sixth in the nine-team SPL, Hougang coach Marko Kraljevic believes the Cheetahs have the quality to make another strong Cup run. He said: “It’s simple – to play in the AFC Cup again, we need to win the Singapore Cup. I’m confident we can finish in the top two of our group for a start.”
He was more cautious about his team’s AFC Cup prospects. They are in Group H with Indonesian Liga 1 champions PSM Makassar, Vietnam League 1 runners-up Haiphong FC, Sabah FC, who finished third in the Malaysian Super League.
Kraljevic said: “We have a tough group as all our opponents are from good leagues. It will be a good experience for us and we will keep learning about what it takes to do well at this level. I hope we can get good results at home, and with a bit of luck, everything is possible.”