SINGAPORE - Lion City Sailors midfielder Song Ui-young was surprisingly left out of the starting XI in their 4-1 loss to Urawa Red Diamonds in their Group F opener on Friday, playing just 12 minutes as a substitute. He was itching so badly to play, he made a bold declaration to coach Kim Do-hoon that he would have a "big game" when told he could start against Daegu FC on Monday (April 18).
Even if it was as a false nine in place of injured striker Kim Shin-wook.
And the 28-year-old delivered, scoring the opener as the Sailors used their heads and hearts in a smart and spirited display to beat the South Korean side 3-0 at the Buriram City Stadium in Thailand and secure their first-ever win in the competition.
Song told The Straits Times: “It’s a big role to replace Shin-wook, and I put in extra effort. Even before sleeping, I will visualise what I will do in that role, and it helped me put in a good performance and score.
“I’m very happy to score and be part of this win but it’s not only about myself. This is for Singapore football and all our fans.”
This is the first victory a Singaporean side have recorded in the tournament proper since the now-dormant Warriors FC beat Chinese club Henan Jianye 2-1 in 2010 en route to finishing third in their group.
The win revives the Sailors’ hopes of making it into the knockout stage, as they climb to second place thanks to a better head-to-head record against Daegu. The three best runners-up in the five east region groups will join the group winners in the round of 16.
While Daegu, who finished third in K League 1 last year, were the favourites to beat the Sailors after thumping China’s Shandong Taishan 7-0 on Friday, the Singapore Premier League champions impressed as they took the game to their more established opponents.
Sailors coach Kim made three changes to the line-up that started against the Diamonds, as Shin-wook, Gabriel Quak and M. Anumanthan made way for Song, Faris Ramli and Amirul Adli. In doing so, he switched from Friday’s 4-3-3 to a back-three and started without a natural striker, which proved a masterstroke.
Song, in particular, was chomping at the bit as a false nine and took less than two minutes to wriggle free on the edge of the area and unleash a deflected effort onto the post. Fifteen minutes later, he narrowly missed out on knocking in Iqram Rifqi’s square pass.
The Sailors also had goalkeeper Hassan Sunny to thank for an excellent flying stop to deny Bruno Lamas’ left-footed shot in the 13th minute, before Song ghosted in between two defenders to meet Maxime Lestienne’s pin-point pick-out for the 21st-minute opener.
It was all about producing a resolute and disciplined defensive display in the second half. The Sailors did that and more as they withstood an initial storm in which Daegu kept probing and struck the post in the 63rd minute, before Lopes led a lightning counterattack and clinically picked his spot from Lestienne’s cutback eight minutes later to double their lead.
Centre-back Pedro Henrique added the icing on the cake in the 80th minute when he headed in Shahdan Sulaiman’s corner to take their goal difference to level terms.
In contrast, Daegu’s night went from bad to worse when their national defender Hong Chul was sent off in the 89th minute for a poor challenge on Song.
Kim’s men will now go into a double-header against bottom side Shandong – who are using their reserve squad for this competition – on Thursday and Sunday with confidence.
Thanking his players, the 51-year-old said: “Tonight will be long remembered as a historic night. The key was for my players to be confident in their ability. If we didn’t concede, the confidence grows. We expected it to be tough. What was on my mind was not to concede too many and see how the game goes, but my boys gave everything on the pitch and executed according to how we prepared.
“Song promised if he plays, he is going to have a big game. He has played in the No. 9 position in the league and I know what he can do. He showed his ability, and he is always ready for any situation. He is a role model in the team, and I’m not surprised at what he can do.”
Song added: “These three points are important to give us a confidence boost that we can compete at this level. We have four more games, out of which we want to get as many points as possible.”