SINGAPORE - The handbrake is off at Singapore Premier League (SPL) leaders Lion City Sailors, and after a 7-0 win over third-placed Tanjong Pagar United on Saturday (Aug 20) evening, only the brave or foolish would bet against them retaining their title this season.
In addition to the goal glut, the Sailors also hit the woodwork thrice in a dominant display at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
Interim head coach Luka Lalic said: “I just feel like these guys should have more freedom to make decisions because we have such quality in the team.
“I told the players that my job as a coach is to take them to the final third. Whatever happens there, that’s completely up to their individual quality. And wow. The goals today were a result of that.”
The Sailors had posted a 10-1 thrashing of Young Lions in Lalic’s first game at the helm, after Kim Do-hoon left the club on Aug 11. They were expected to face a sterner test against Tanjong Pagar, but displayed their attacking intent from the start.
Saifullah Akbar, usually an attack-minded midfielder but deployed on the left side of defence, and Gabriel Quak hit the crossbar and upright, respectively, inside the opening six minutes.
It did not take the Sailors much longer to find the net. In-form Belgian winger Maxime Lestienne put the finishing touch on a tippy-tappy move which sliced the Tanjong Pagar defence apart in the 10th minute.
Despite their dominance, they had to wait until added time in the first half to double their lead, with rampaging right back Hafiz Nor finishing past onrushing Jaguars goalkeeper Fashah Iskandar.
The Sailors maintained their tempo and intensity in the second-half, and scored twice in quick succession. Quak’s shot from inside the area crept inside Fashah’s far post in the 53rd minute, before Kim Shin-wook blasted home from close range five minutes later.
Diego Lopes, Sailors’ Brazilian playmaker who is enjoying a renaissance in his sophomore season, then added a fifth from the penalty spot in the 69th minute before substitute Song Ui-young scored five minutes later. Lopes then added the finishing touch with a powerful shot from the edge of the area in the 87th minute.
Despite the big back-to-back wins, Lalic said: “I have worked in football too long to think that it’s all sunshine and rainbows.
“I stand with both feet firmly on the ground yes this is a great result, but I still see a lot of things to build on and be better at.”
Yesterday’s defeat was the Jaguars’ fourth on the trot and after a strong first half of the season, they will be desperate to hang on to third place, which may come with qualification to the AFC Cup continental competition next year.
But team manager Noh Alam Shah, filling in for suspended head coach Hasrin Jailani, said that tough spell was always expected by the backroom team.
“We expected this dip in the third round of games, with the accumulation of cards, injury and fatigue after going hard in the first two rounds,” said the former national striker.
“Our (fitness) periodisation was geared towards us peaking early, and then again at the end of the season and for the Singapore Cup (which begins on Oct 25). That’s why we are not panicking.”
With seven games left this season, the Sailors are three points ahead of second-placed Albirex Niigata, and with a superior goal difference of 10.
Kim was criticised in some quarters for being too conservative in his approach, but Lalic has shown he is keen to leverage on the multitude of attacking quality options the Sailors possess.
On Saturday, they showed their strength in depth too - sending Singapore internationals M. Anumanthan, Faris Ramli and Song off the bench - with the latter two again effective.
Albirex are no slouches themselves going forward and on Friday defeated Tampines Rovers thanks to a high-quality brace each from strikers Kodai Tanaka and Ilhan Fandi to keep pace with the league leaders.
But the Japanese side have not looked rock solid in defence and this may prove the difference in the title race.