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Sailors lose to Johor Darul Takzim in SPL pre-season test

Out to reclaim the Singapore Premier League (SPL) title they won in 2021, the Lion City Sailors kick-started their pre-season preparations with a 2-1 defeat by Malaysia Super League (MSL) champions Johor Darul Takzim (JDT) on April 4.

The Sailors have retained the majority of their squad that saw them finish runners-up last season, while adding Bart Ramselaar, who joined from Dutch Eredivisie side Utrecht, Croatian centre back Toni Datkovic and fan favourite Song Ui-young. All three were in action in the friendly game in front of a sell-out crowd of 2,477 at the Bishan Stadium.

Their Under-21 team had predominantly featured in the SPL’s pre-season tournament, which runs till April 21. The 2024-25 season kicks off on May 4 with the Community Shield match, followed by the league a week later and concluding in May 2025.

While the Sailors showed some ring rust in the friendly and looked far from their best, coach Aleksandar Rankovic said the performance brought “a lot of positives”.

The 45-year-old said: “It was a great test for us. We created a lot of chances and played our way of football.

“When I came in in the middle of last season, I had to react fast, which was not easy sometimes. When I have a full pre-season, I have time to try a lot of options.”

JDT coach Hector Bidoglio said: “They’re a very good team, they are also in pre-season but they were compact and have a lot of quality players.”

Up against a stern test from JDT – who have won 10 consecutive MSL titles – the Sailors showed a lack of fitness. But despite some defensive lapses, they became more organised as they settled into the match.

Still, they could not deny the quality of the away side – who were missing key forwards in Brazilian Bergson and Argentinian Fernando Forestieri – as they took the lead nine minutes in when Nicolao Cardoso headed home unmarked.

Fifteen minutes later, Romel Morales scored with a bicycle kick to make it 2-0.

The home team pulled one back in the 37th minute via Maxime Lestienne’s curling shot into the far corner. Hami Syahin was sent off in the 64th minute after a reckless challenge on Safiq Rahim, ending any hopes of an equaliser.

With the Sailors set to play in four tournaments in the upcoming season – the SPL, Singapore Cup, Asian Football Confederation Champions League 2 and the Asean Club Championship – Ramselaar said building up the players’ fitness in pre-season was key to managing their workload.

Rankovic added: “We’re playing almost the same team as last season, the new guys from Europe are also used to playing football (for a long season) and will adapt well.”

The Sailors face JDT again in Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Stadium on April 8, before flying to Thailand for a training camp ahead of the new season.

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