SINGAPORE - A week ago, it was smooth sailing for the Lion City Sailors as they held a three-point lead and healthy goal difference advantage over second-placed Albirex Niigata.
But last Sunday, that advantage atop the Singapore Premier League (SPL) evaporated after a 3-1 loss to Geylang International.
Key centre-back Pedro Henrique also injured his leg while two other members of their first-choice backline, Hariss Harun and Hafiz Nor, picked up yellow cards that have triggered a one-match suspension.
None of which is an ideal build-up to the grudge match against Tampines Rovers at Our Tampines Hub on Saturday.
Yet, interim Sailors coach Luka Lalic, whose first three games produced three wins with 26 goals scored, remains unperturbed. The Serb, 35, still believes his team can win their remaining five SPL games and retain their title.
He said: “(The loss) was bound to happen sooner or later, and fortunately, it happened this moment.
“We had really good and open discussion with our players and what I really appreciate is that nobody was hiding, everybody took responsibility for what happened. We looked each other in the eyes and everybody knows we can do better than this.
“We are still in first position with a superior goal difference, 10 more than Albirex. So it’s really our title to lose from this point, and everybody’s focused on winning this league.”
He has capable defensive deputies in Amirul Adli, Bill Mamadou, M. Anumanthan and Naqiuddin Eunos but Lalic acknowledged the defensive lapses from the 9-4 win against Hougang United and the Geylang loss.
He admitted he may have pushed his players a little too hard in training before the Geylang match but said the Sailors are committed to their attacking style.
“I always like to say we play for goals more and I will stick to that. And then defensively we try to sanitise as much as possible. Whatever the other team is doing, we have enough quality to react,” he said.
Looking to make the Sailors seasick by ending a run of five straight losses to the leaders is Tampines striker Boris Kopitovic. His 28 league goals have broken the club record of 26 previously held by Aleksandar Duric (2011) and Mirko Grabovac (2005).
The Montenegrin said: “This was a goal I set for myself this season, and to break the record is an honour. But it is not over yet and I want to score more in our last five games.”
There were fireworks the last time both clubs met – a touchline bust-up between former Sailors coach Kim Do-hoon and Tampines assistant coach Mustafic Fahrudin on July 24. Both men were fined and suspended, with Kim leaving the Sailors shortly after.
Lalic, who is good friends with Mustafic as well as Stags coach Gavin Lee, dismissed any ill feeling. He said: “When you wear a shirt with the logo of LCS, you represent the club, you are a role model to so many people, our academy coaches and players as well.
“I made the clear message – not only for this game but for every game – to players not to react to the opposition, their bench, and also to the referee because I see no point in that. It just makes you lose your focus.”
Goalkeeper Hassan Sunny agreed: “Nobody has been talking about the incident since coach Kim left. This will just be a match between two good teams.
“We have a job to do and will enter the game with the right attitude and mindset.”
This week's other matches
Tanjong Pagar v Balestier (Friday, 7.45pm, Jurong East)
The Jaguars ended a run of five straight losses with a 3-3 draw with Hougang and can still finish in the top half. There were also bright sparks for the Tigers under new coach Peter de Roo as they became only the third team to put three past Albirex this season in their 5-3 defeat.
Albirex v Young Lions (Saturday, 5.30pm, Jurong East)
The Japanese side have won their previous three matches against Young Lions with an aggregate score of 17-1. One source of hope for the local developmental side is the White Swans’ defence, with just four clean sheets this campaign, even if two were against the Young Lions.
Geylang v Hougang (Sunday, 5.30pm, Our Tampines Hub)
If Hougang are to secure a top-three finish, they have to fix a defence that leaked 22 goals in their last five games. But Geylang are in remarkable form. After one win in their first 12 matches, they have lost just once in their last 11 ties and are hoping to secure possible Asian Football Confederation Cup qualification.