Football: Red-hot Lestienne hopes to blaze a trail for Sailors, Singapore football

Maxime Lestienne (second from right) has set the league alight this year with eight goals and 17 assists. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - Maxime Lestienne has been in blazing form in the Singapore Premier League (SPL), but not quite as hot as the local climate that often leaves the Lion City Sailors winger red in the face.

"I love it, but only outside of football," he said on Thursday (Aug 18). "During the game I hate the heat and humidity. The way I play, I sprint a lot and it actually becomes a little hard to breathe when it's too hot or humid.

"I've started to adapt, but at every game it feels like I've given everything that my body can give - and I end up looking like a tomato!"

The Sailors, who lead second-placed Albirex Niigata by three points, face third-placed Tanjong Pagar on Saturday and will be counting on more dazzling displays from Lestienne.

The Belgian, 30, has set the league alight this year with eight goals and 17 assists in about 1,160 minutes of play, or a goal involvement every 45 minutes.

In their last game - a 10-1 hammering of the Young Lions - he scored and assisted in the same game for the seventh time this season, an SPL record since the league was rebranded in 2018 and stats began being tabulated.

The winger, who signed from Standard Liege in early February but started his first game for the Sailors only in April, explained he was happy to bide his time, as he was short on match fitness.

His last start for Standard was in early December and he needed time to adapt to the climate here.

Lestienne's quality is clear. He has been capped at all youth levels for his country and received several call-ups to the national team as recently as 2019 but has yet to win a senior cap. At Dutch club PSV, he also played in the Champions League and featured against the likes of Atletico Madrid and Manchester United.

This year, however, he took a leap of faith to play outside Europe for the first time in his career. He revealed he had an offer from a club in Saudi Arabia, but joined the Sailors on a two-year deal because he was impressed by the club's "ambitious long-term vision", as well as the draw of Singapore being a "brilliant" place for his family.

"That made me decide - with certainty - that I want to be at the heart of this project and help the Sailors achieve our vision of becoming one of Asia's top clubs.... And it has turned out to be a fantastic experience for my family and I," he said.

He admitted knowing "next to nothing" about Singapore football, and candidly said he expected the level of football to be low.

"But when I came here I was shocked, and pleasantly so," he said. "I was really impressed by the technical level and endurance of several of the players in our team. It was clear we have a good team, and they were all warm and welcoming, making my adaptation to Singapore football very easy."

Life off the pitch is also settled. Lestienne's family joined him about a month after he arrived, and two of his older children - he has a seven-year-old daughter and boys aged three and five - are playing in the Sailors' academy.

He hopes his arrival helps convince more high-calibre players from Europe to come to the SPL and raise standards.

"Some of my friends (in football) have told me that they maybe want to come to Singapore too," he said. "Now we have Diego (Lopes), Pedro (Henrique) and me. If we start to see more players come over, I'm confident that the league will continue to improve."

This week's other matches

Albirex v Tampines (Friday, 7.45pm, Jurong East)

Albirex beat the Sailors three weeks ago but then undid their good work by dropping points in draws with Hougang and Geylang. Another potential banana skin could be a resurgent Tampines, who have won consecutive games for the first time since early May.

Hougang v Young Lions (Saturday, 5.30pm, Hougang)

Hougang did not know what hit them in their shock 6-1 loss to Balestier on Aug 12. They had drawn Albirex in the previous game, and lost just once in the previous seven matches. The Young Lions, however, are coming off thrashings by Albirex (7-1) and Sailors. Things cannot get any worse, can they?

Geylang v Balestier (Sunday, 5.30pm, Our Tampines Hub)

The Eagles were moments away from beating Albirex before an injury-time goal pegged them back. How they react to that disappointment is anyone's guess. Balestier were clinical against Hougang but were thrown into disarray on Thursday after head coach Akbar Nawas announced he will step down at the end of the month.

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