Lion City Sailors off to winning start in 2023 SPL season
The Lion City Sailors celebrated their return to Bishan Stadium in style as they notched a 3-1 win over Tanjong Pagar United in the 2023 Singapore Premier League opener on Friday.
Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne stole the show with three assists while new signing and reigning Player of The Year Kodai Tanaka scored a brace on his debut.
The Sailors had played their home matches at the Jalan Besar Stadium in the last two seasons as works were being carried out on the pitch of their old Bishan homeground.
In the opening match of the 2022 season, Tanjong Pagar played party poopers when they stunned eventual champions Albirex Niigata 2-0.
But this time the 2021 league winners Sailors – who are looking to reclaim the SPL title which they relinquished in 2022 – stuck to the script and showcased their superiority over their opponents from kick-off. In the four matches between both teams last season, Sailors won all four while scoring 22 and conceding only two in those games.
After a league-high 23 assists last season, Lestienne was off the mark after just 11 minutes when he found space down the left flank and put it on a plate for Hafiz Nor to score.
In the 68th minute, Tanjong Pagar were given a lifeline when referee Ahmad A’Qashah pointed to the spot after Abdul Rasaq was deemed to have brought Blake Ricciuto down in the box.
Mirko Sugic, however, sent his penalty wide.
Tanjong Pagar were soon punished for the miss as Japanese forward Tanaka made it 2-0 after a breakaway in the 89th minute. Once again, Lestienne was the provider with a cross from the left flank.
The video assistant referee (VAR), which was making its debut in the SPL, did not quite take centre stage as it did during Albirex’s 3-0 win over Hougang United in the Community Shield last Sunday. But it was on hand to give the all clear on several occasions with checks on possible red-card offences and offside calls.
All the checking meant that there were 10 minutes added on. The Jaguars made the most of it as they got on the scoreboard two minutes into the extended period when Shahrin Saberin halved the deficit with a close-range header.
But the Sailors put the game to bed two minutes later with Tanaka once again applying the easy finish after he got on the end of Lestienne’s delivery from the left.
History was also made with 16-year-old defender Idzham Eszuan becoming the youngest Sailor in the SPL and the third-youngest debutant in the league, when he came on as a substitute in stoppage time.
This SPL season is the fourth campaign for Singapore’s first privatised side, who have presented multiple iterations on the pitch under various head coaches.
With Aurelio Vidmar at the helm in 2020, the Sailors played free-flowing attacking football before they prioritised organisation and defensive solidity under Kim Do-hoon in 2021 to win the title.
In his first game in charge, Vidakovic opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation which meant that the Sailors looked balanced in defence and attack – a combination of what his predecessors brought – with a preference for building attacks from the back and keeping it on the deck.
The Sailors’ opener was an indication. Starting from goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad, the Sailors exchanged nine passes from back to front before Hafiz applied the finish in the box.
While they will face stiffer tests than this, a better balance will be the way forward if the Sailors are to regain the title this season.