SINGAPORE - Their rudders appeared to sputter at times, but Lion City Sailors had just enough in the tank to edge Geylang International 2-1 in their Singapore Premier League clash at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Sunday night (May 9) in their first game since the departure of head coach Aurelio Vidmar.
The win placed them second in the table, just a point behind defending champions Albirex Niigata. Aussie coach Vidmar left the Sailors on April 28 to return to his former club, Thai champions BG Pathum.
The big-spending Sailors had beaten Geylang 8-0 a month earlier, but found the Eagles less willing to submit this time.
With Under-21 coach Robin Chitrakar at the helm temporarily, they got off to a good start when Stipe Plazibat fired them into the lead after 22 minutes. The Croatian marksman capitalised on a misplaced pass by Darren Teh to bag his ninth goal of the season.
But their lead lasted just five minutes, after Geylang's Brazilian striker Matheus Moresche gleefully pounced on an error by Sailors custodian Hassan Sunny to level the score.
The strike appeared to gee Geylang, and Sailors' defender Jorge Fellipe was fortunate to escape with just a yellow card in the 32nd minute after clattering into his compatriot Moresche outside the box, as the former looked to be through on goal.
Five minutes after the break, Moresche had the ball in the back of the net but the goal was ruled out for offside.
The Sailors' jangling nerves were then settled momentarily by a superb strike from Saifullah Akbar, who arrowed a shot from 20m into the bottom corner to restore their lead.
Injury-hit Geylang, however, refused to throw in the towel and Amy Recha came close to a second equaliser, with a volley that sailed just inches over the bar in the 79th minute.
The Sailors piled on the pressure in search of a third goal to give them a cushion but Gabriel Quak was first denied by a superb stop by debutant Geylang goalkeeper Sanders Saurajen, 20, before substitute Faris Ramli cannoned a shot off the upright in added time.
Chitrakar said: "Our main objective was the three points so I'm definitely satisfied with that. We did not start well but we knew it was going to be a tough game where we would have to dig deep, and we did that."
Match-winner Saifullah Akbar admitted he and his teammates struggled to settle in the game without Vidmar barking out orders in the technical area.
"Coach Aurelio is vocal and every minute on the bench in games, he is demanding the best from us," said the 22-year-old. "So it was a bit different not hearing his voice and we weren't able to adapt quickly in the first half, but with coach Robin filling in we eventually managed to do it."
Geylang coach Noor Ali chose to look at the positives in the game, pointing to the debut performances of Saurajen and rightback Ilhan Noor as "the type of Geylang team we want to see, with fighting spirit and hard work".
In Sunday night's other game, Hougang United beat Balestier Khalsa 4-3 at the Hougang Stadium, thanks to a late winner by Hafiz Sujad.
With title rivals Albirex Niigata and Tampines Rovers dropping points after sharing the spoils in a draw on Saturday, the Sailors needed to win this game to capitalise.
The three points are in the bag but they will look back on this game as one of their less convincing performances this season.
Against an injury-hit Geylang side who could not fill their seven-man bench, and with four of their five outfielders sitting on it under the age of 23, they struggled to impose their dominance.
In several phases of the game, Geylang even looked the more dangerous of the two teams and created good chances of their own.
The Sailors' fixture list is kind - they take on the bottom two teams, Tanjong Pagar and Young Lions, in their next two games - but have to show improvements in those games as they look ahead to bigger challenges further down the road.