SINGAPORE - Flicks, pirouettes, no-look passes. Lion City Sailors’ star playmaker Diego Lopes was at his sparkling best in their top-of-the-table Singapore Premier League (SPL) clash with Tanjong Pagar United at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Saturday (April 9).
Most importantly for the Sailors, their 1.8 million euro (S$2.67 million) man also had goals in him, netting twice to set them on their way to a 6-1 win over the Jaguars.
Lopes has shown only sporadic glimpses of his talent since arriving from then-Portuguese Primeira Liga side Rio Ave at the start of last season as the Sailors’ statement signing. One example was a stunning volleyed winner against Hougang United last term.
He said the key to his star turn yesterday was being able to “build my game” by playing regularly.
The Brazilian started only 10 of his 19 appearances last season, with most of those coming under Kim Do-hoon after he took over in the middle of last season.
This term, he has started five of seven games despite heavy rotation of the star-studded squad.
“I have the trust of the coach, I’ve played more 90-minute games and yes, I would say this was one of my best since I’ve arrived here,” said Lopes.
Against Tanjong Pagar, the 27-year-old opened the scoring after just nine minutes, looping a header over goalkeeper Zharfan Rohaizad.
He doubled his side’s advantage in the 28th minute, drilling in a low shot from the edge of the box.
Lopes turned creator five minutes later, splitting Tanjong Pagar’s defence with an incisive through pass to send Shahdan Sulaiman clear on goal to score.
Tanjong Pagar had fought back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 in their last match against Tampines Rovers, but there was no way back for them here.
The defending champions threw on Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne for the start of the second half and he set up two more goals, for Kim Shin-wook (46th minute) and Hafiz Nor (72nd).
Those strikes sandwiched an own goal by Pedro Henrique.
Lestienne then added gloss to the Sailors’ win in the 91st minute.
The victory puts them four points clear at the top after the first of the season’s three rounds.
Their coach said it was the best the team has played under his charge and hailed Lopes.
Said Kim: “Of course as a coach, I am satisfied but he is improving and I know he will get better.”
Meanwhile, his opposite number Hasrin Jailani said: “We lost to a quality team. This game came three days after a very hard match.”
In last night’s other match, Tampines Rovers and Albirex Niigata drew 3-3 at Our Tampines Hub.
Saturday night's big win was the perfect send-off for the Sailors before they travel to Buriram on Monday for their Asian Champions League group matches.
For Tanjong Pagar, who were forced to sit out the league for five seasons due to financial woes and only returned in 2020, they have shown tenacity and resilience this season and their lofty position in the table – they remain second – is testament to that.
Their herculean comeback against Tampines could have taken too much out of them, as they looked off-colour against the Sailors. The disparity on the bench also did not help matters.
While the Jaguars were forced to send on full-back Rusyaidi Salime to replace injured striker Khairul Nizam in the 27th minute, the Sailors called on Singapore internationals Faris Ramli, Song Ui-young, Adam Swandi and Hafiz Nor from the bench, as well as former PSV Eindhoven winger Lestienne.
Hasrin will no doubt look forward to the month-long break before their next game.