Lion City Sailors mean business in second voyage into Asian Champions League
When the Lion City Sailors chose to include more foreign players in their squad beyond the Singapore Premier League (SPL) quota this season, it became clear that they were serious about their second Asian Champions League (ACL) campaign, which kicks off on Wednesday night.
The SPL’s only privatised club retained Spanish defender Manuel Lopez in June despite deregistering him from the league.
In the following month, they added Portuguese midfielder Rui Pires, Australian centre-back Bailey Wright and Curacaoan forward Richairo Zivkovic to their ranks, with the latter two bolstering their SPL side, which already comprises Maxime Lestienne and Diego Lopes.
They also have Japanese striker Kodai Tanaka and Brazilian defender Pedro Henrique, who are returning from long-term injuries, on their payroll, which means they have twice the number of foreigners allowed to play in the SPL under the four-player quota.
But their wealth of foreign talent will be crucial in the ACL, which has a quota of 5+1 for imports (five players of any nationality and one from an Asian Football Confederation member association). Out of their eight imports, the Sailors can name any six in their match-day squad.
The Sailors are in East Zone’s Group F alongside Korean League 1 runners-up Jeonbuk Motors, Hong Kong Premier League champions Kitchee and Thai League 1 runners-up Bangkok United, whom they host at Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday.
The 10 group winners, along with the three best runners-up from each zone, will progress to the round of 16. Saudi Pro League clubs like Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr, Karim Benzema’s Al-Ittihad and Neymar’s Al-Hilal are in the West Zone.
Sailors coach Aleksandar Rankovic said they are “taking the ACL very seriously”, adding: “Representing Singapore football at the Asian level comes with an important responsibility.
“We have brought players on board, committed wholeheartedly to our preparation, and are determined to put up performances that our fans, and Singapore, can be proud of.”
But the 45-year-old Serb admitted: “It can be really tricky because a lot of the foreign players are lacking the match rhythm.”
To deal with that, they played three friendlies against SPL clubs during the recent international break. Pires noted that the matches benefited him, considering that his last match was the friendly against Tottenham Hotspur in July.
He told The Straits Times: “I’ve worked hard because I know I need to be prepared for the ACL. The friendlies were also good for me because when you play games, it’s different from training and that’s very important.”
Lopez, better known as Super, said: “Nobody likes to be deregistered from the league, it was very hard for me. But I understand and respect (the decision), so I kept working on being as fit as I can. Everything I’ve been waiting for starts on Wednesday.”
The Sailors’ opponents on Wednesday, Bangkok, are also making their second appearance in the ACL. They head into the clash in fine form, standing top of the Thai League 1 after four matches.
Coach Totchtawan Sripan, who starred for local club Sembawang Rangers in the early 2000s, said at the pre-match press conference: “Playing on artificial grass is something we cannot control. We’ve always been playing on natural grass. Hopefully we can get used to the pitch as fast as we can.”
The Sailors performed honourably in their ACL debut in 2022, beating South Korea’s Daegu FC once and claiming four points against China’s Shandong Taishan to finish third in their group.
Captain Hariss Harun hopes his side can “keep the momentum going” after winning their last five competitive matches.
He added: “(A win) will set the tone for us... It’ll give us confidence moving forward, and we just need to find the recipe for consistency.”
Tickets to Wednesday’s match are available via https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/AFCLCS2023.