Football: Resurgent Lopes key to Sailors' SPL title defence

Under Kim, Diego Lopes started twice and came off the bench seven times in the last 10 games of the season. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - The arrival of South Korean coach Kim Do-hoon last May almost spelt the end of Diego Lopes' Lion City Sailors career.

The Singapore Premier League's most expensive player, who arrived for $2.9 million from Rio Ave last year, had seemingly settled down well, averaging 79 minutes in his first 10 games as he compiled five goals and four assists.

His technique was not in question. There were plenty of crowd-thrilling tricks and flicks but not enough coach-pleasing application of getting stuck in for the team.

Under Kim, who places an emphasis on defensive solidity and aggression, Lopes started twice and came off the bench seven times in the last 10 games of the season, averaging 46 minutes per game and notching just one goal and one assist.

Kim told The Straits Times: "I told him, 'You press once and you stop, you're standing on the pitch, playing an individual game and not with the team.'

"We had lots of meetings and I think it put a bit of a scratch on his pride and dug deep into his emotions because I was very honest and direct with him.

"And all credit to him because he put in a lot of effort and really changed himself."

Taking on board the critique like a true professional and not a prima donna, the tweaks started from pre-season with an external nutritionist engaged to tailor-make a diet to reduce Lopes' body fat and give him more energy for training and matches.

This meant cutting down on his sugar intake, quitting chocolate, religiously keeping to 150 grams of white meat, 70 grams of rice and 30 grams of beans per meal and drinking more than four litres of water per day.

The 1.71-metre playmaker also put in extra strength training work to ensure he could make and win more physical challenges.

"I was discouraged and started doubting myself at first, but I managed to overcome that with hard work, and now I'm in a good moment again," said Lopes.

"It's the coach's decision who are going to start. As a player, my job is to get ready, be fit and available whenever he calls on me. I just continue doing my best, working and training harder with more intensity, and maybe the coach now see the difference."

The results are obvious this term - he has averaged 77 minutes in 14 matches and grabbed five goals and one assist, and won over Kim, who now regards him "an important part of the team for the rest of the season".

Ahead of their tantalising clash against Tampines Rovers on Saturday (May 21), Lopes shared that while his football skills were honed on the streets and futsal halls in Sao Paulo, his tough mentality was built when he moved to Portugal and signed for Benfica at 14.

As it turned out, Kim wasn't the first coach to show him tough love.

Lopes said: "I would take the ball and dribble past three, four or five players and lose the ball. A coach explained there is no point dribbling past everyone and lose the ball, so I also need to be good in passing, which I worked at every day.

"Also, my father was with me in Portugal for only half a year. After that, when most of my teammates go home on days off, I would stay behind in the training centre where I lived. I was all by himself, and learnt to be tough and do everything by myself at a young age because I had no one to help me."

And as his football career took him to Turkey, Greece and now Singapore, he is no longer alone as his wife Thaynara Geroldi and 13-year-old son Matheus are living with him and giving him all the motivation he needs to play at his best.

With his side looking to preserve a six-point lead at the top of the table, Lopes declared: "I want continue to improve my football and live up to my potential here and help the team become champions again. Winning my first championship with the Sailors last year is no small feat and a memory I will treasure forever, and I hope this is the first of many to come."

Other fixtures:

Tanjong Pagar v Balestier (May 20, 7.45pm)

The Jaguars will be keen to show that their six-match unbeaten start to the season is not just a bubble that has burst following four games without a win. Balestier's defence has improved significantly, conceding five goals in their last four matches, compared to the 20 they shipped in their first five games.

Geylang v Hougang (May 22, 5.30pm)

Geylang have actually played some good football this season but find themselves stuck in a seven-match winless run. In their last encounter, a late Andre Moritz wonderstrike sealed the three points for Hougang, who have scored 10 out of their 15 goals in the last 20 minutes.

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