Football: Stiff competition drives Sailors forward in S'pore Premier League title hunt

Brazilian playmaker Diego Lopes (second from left) has started from the bench in Lion City Sailors' last three games. PHOTO: LION CITY SAILORS

SINGAPORE - In six out of the last nine games, the Lion City Sailors have been leaving their $2.9 million asset - playmaker Diego Lopes - on the bench.

But as they stand on the brink of clinching their first Singapore Premier League (SPL) title as a privatised club with a good win over Balestier Khalsa at Jalan Besar on Sunday (Oct 10), Sailors coach Kim Do-hoon insisted this decision is more for a healthy squad rotation that has come good.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, he backed his players and provided insight to his team selection, which includes having to cope with the rule of starting three local under-23 players.

"We have immense quality throughout the team and this allows me to rotate the squad without concern," he explained. "Previously, there was not much rotation, which caused issues when the starters were injured. As such, I want to ensure all players can be readily called upon."

On the back of a nine-game unbeaten run as they surge to the top on goal difference, Kim's approach makes sense when one considers the abundance of talents in his squad.

Their star-studded frontline boasts last season's top scorer Stipe Plazibat, Player of the Year Gabriel Quak, and 2019 Player of the Year Faris Ramli. In midfield, they have Shahdan Sulaiman, Song Ui-young and Young Player of the Year Saifullah Akbar. Further back, national captain Hariss Harun partners Brazilian giant Jorge Fellipe in defence with Hassan Sunny in goal.

But with the historic price tag comes big responsibilities, and it has been a mixed bag for Lopes, who became the Singapore Premier League's most expensive player when he was signed from then-Portuguese top-tier side Rio Ave in January.

He does have five goals, which include a hat-trick in the 8-0 drubbing of Geylang International, and five assists in 18 appearances, of which 10 were as a starter. This output is similar to his best season in Portugal when he notched six goals and four assists in 30 games for Rio Ave in the 2019/2020 season.

At his best, Lopes draws gasps from the crowd with his skilful touches and silky turns, but his waifish 1.71m, 66kg frame sometimes gives the impression he does not provide the same level of intensity as some of his teammates.

With the glut of talents in the Sailors squad, Lopes has started just twice since Kim's first game in charge in July, as Song Ui-young worked his way back into the reckoning with some dynamic displays of late.

Having arrived from a more competitive environment, the 27-year-old Brazilian understands how professional football works.

Lopes said: "In my first season here, I think I have done well to adapt and be productive. We are fighting for the title and our fate is in our own hands.

"No player likes to be on the bench... it is difficult. But I respect the coach's decision and always try to improve in every training session and do my best on the field."

Diego Lopes (centre) was signed by Lion City Sailors from Rio Ave for $2.9 million in January. PHOTO: LION CITY SAILORS

Song also attested to the strong team spirit under Kim, sharing how the coach has introduced little details to improve cohesion as players and officials will high-five one another before sessions start, and shout bagsu (Korean for clap) and clap three times when they end.

The 27-year-old has been at the club, including predecessors Home United, for 10 seasons and desperately wants his first league winner's medal.He said: "We always had a good mix of imports and national players over the years, but never got close to winning the league. If we win this year, then it will prove this is the best team.

"Diego's arrival provided me with strong competition this season, but this should be normal if we want to be in a strong team playing for trophies. We are all mature professionals who are focused on doing our best for the team, and we get along well.

"Our condition is good, and morale is high. We know it is not over yet, and we will prepare for Balestier like it is a final."

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.