Football: Lion City Sailors eye S'pore Cup redemption after failing to retain league title

Lion City Sailors' Kim Shin Wook (9) scores the first goal for his team against Albirex Niigata on Oct 7, 2022. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE - Losing hurts, but the Lion City Sailors aim to take the pain from surrendering their Singapore Premier League (SPL) title to Albirex Niigata and use it as motivation for the future and regain their crown in 2023.

The White Swans sealed their fifth title in seven seasons after a 4-2 win over the Sailors, their nearest challengers and last season's champions, at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Friday night.

The Sailors, having spent millions in 2022 on big-name recruits like Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne, Brazilian defender Pedro Henrique and former South Korean captain Kim Shin-wook, had trailed their rivals by four points before the match. It was a consequence of three straight losses and they needed at least a point to remain in contention.

After the game, the Sailors' interim head coach Luka Lalic said: "We did not lose the title in this game, we lost it in the previous three. Today we did pretty well, created a lot of chances but didn't (take) them. Albirex took almost every chance they created, and that was the main difference.

"Obviously the feeling is not great but the season is not over. There's the Singapore Cup (from Oct 27 to Nov 19) to focus on and that's what we are going to do."

Skipper Hariss Harun, a hapless observer in the stands as he was serving a suspension, said: "It's disappointing of course, there's no denying that, we're all gutted.

"But... we'll take a few days to recover, then we'll have to make sure we put in all the work to make sure we're in a position to battle for the Singapore Cup."

Things appeared rosy for the Sailors at the end of August, when they were three points clear of Albirex at the top of the table with a superior goal difference of 14.

But then came a dramatic slide in form and reverses to Geylang International (3-1), Tampines Rovers (2-1) and, perhaps most shockingly, second-from-bottom Balestier Khalsa (5-3) last Sunday.

Lalic, who took the reins a day after Kim Do-hoon left by mutual consent on Aug 11, said injuries and suspensions played a part in the team's dip in form.

On Friday, apart from Hariss' absence, they also missed his centre-back partner Henrique through injury, leaving Lalic to throw the 21-year-old rookie Bill Mamadou into the deep end for his first SPL start for the club.

While he praised the youngster's performance, Lalic said: "As coaching staff, we have done whatever was in our power to get the best performance out of our players.

"Unfortunately we did not get that every time and I think there are some fundamental reasons for that, and those are issues that cannot be fixed overnight.

"It will take time by myself or somebody else who replaces me. But for the next league (season), rest assured, you will see a Sailors team that will be a force to be reckoned with."

The Serb, 35, thanked the vociferous Sailors fans, who made up most of the 3,500 crowd at the Jalan Besar grandstand.

"Their support was really great throughout the season, and especially today. I can only send a big apology to them. We could have done better, we didn't, and I hope they continue with their support in the Singapore Cup," he said.

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