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Lion City Sailors beat Hougang United 3-1 for first Singapore Cup title

When their stars align, it can all look so simple for the Lion City Sailors.

So it proved at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Dec 9, when Aleksandar Rankovic’s side cruised to a 3-1 win over a depleted Hougang United in the Singapore Cup final for the Sailors’ second major trophy since they replaced Home United as a privatised side in 2020.

Without being at their best, the 2021 Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions controlled the match and saw it out expertly.

It is, however, what one would expect from a team with imports like Bailey Wright, Maxime Lestienne, Richairo Zivkovic and Diego Lopes – who have played at the World Cup, Champions League, English Premier League and a top European league respectively – and a host of Singapore internationals.

Skipper Hariss Harun said: “The team stepped up when it mattered, even the younger players like Nathan (Mao). I’m happy and proud to win my first Singapore Cup title in my first final, but what we also want is to win the league again.”

Rankovic added: “It’s not just the foreigners, but we have a very good group, and we barely allowed our opponents a shot on target. This was a win we deserved.”

Determined to finish on a high after a season that promised much but yielded only a second-place SPL finish behind Albirex Niigata and a group-stage exit in the AFC Champions League, the Sailors served notice of their intent early on when Lestienne’s right-footed shot following a fast break was saved by Zaiful Nizam.

But five minutes later, following a four-minute check with the video assistant referee, Zivkovic’s flick off Christopher van Huizen’s cross was deemed to have been handled by Naoki Kuriyama and the former Ajax Amsterdam and Sheffield United striker calmly stroked in the 27th-minute penalty for the opener.

The luckless Kuriyama then headed into his own net from a cross by winger Lestienne, the 2023 SPL Player of the Year, in the 42nd minute and the Cheetahs never recovered from that.

The odds were already against the cup holders to begin with, and Marko Kraljevic’s men were not helped by injuries to key players like 2022 Singapore Cup final hat-trick hero Kristijan Krajcek, Shahdan Sulaiman and Gabriel Quak, while Zulfahmi Arifin moved to Indonesia’s Bhayangkara in November.

Unsurprisingly, they did not create any clear chance to trouble Izwan Mahbud in the Sailors goal, with Djorde Maksimovic cutting a lonely figure up front.

Their main threat would come from set pieces, and they would count themselves unlucky when penalty decisions did not go their way in the second half.

Sahil Suhaimi’s 52nd-minute free kick appeared to have hit van Huizen’s arm, before the Hougang forward crumpled into a heap under the attention of the same opponent 14 minutes later, but referee Andrea Verolino was unmoved.

The Sailors even had the luxury of bringing on national striker Shawal Anuar for 15-year-old Nathan and the veteran scored in the 81st minute from a brilliant Lestienne through ball. Kazuma Takayama’s added-time goal was a mere consolation for Hougang, as the Sailors celebrated by tossing owner Forrest Li in the air post-match.

Kraljevic bemoaned the comparative lack of quality in his team, as well as the first penalty call, saying: “The players were too close together, what was my defender supposed to do? Our boys worked very hard and this decision in a final was very painful to take.

“Credit to the Sailors, they have individuals who can kill you and we couldn’t get behind their back four and midfield two, who were always there.”


??? ????. Our first Singapore Cup triumph and this is for you fans! ??⚓ #whiteblueandbold #lioncitysailors #SGCup #LCSHOU

Posted by Lion City Sailors Football Club on Saturday, December 9, 2023

In the earlier third-place play-off, Tampines Rovers beat 10-man Brunei DPMM 2-0 thanks to first-half goals from Boris Kopitovic and Faris Ramli.

Under the revamped Asian Football Confederation competitions, Singapore will not have any representation in the top-tier AFC Champions League Elite for the 2024-25 season. Instead, the Sailors will have a direct slot in the second-tier AFC Champions League 2 as the best local finisher in the SPL, while the next-best Stags will get a play-off spot.