SINGAPORE — Home United, the previous incarnation of the privatised Lion City Sailors, were the kingpins of the Singapore Cup, winning it a record six times since its inception in 1998. On Sunday, the Sailors followed their predecessors' footsteps by clinching their first Singapore Cup, after easing to a 3-1 win over last year's champions Hougang United in the final at Jalan Besar Stadium.
A first-half penalty, a fortuitous deflected goal and a superb breakaway goal sealed the cup triumph for the 2021 Singapore Premier League (SPL) winners, who swept through the competition unbeaten in six matches and fended off the likes of Balestier Khalsa, Tanjong Pagar United and Tampines Rovers.
The Singapore Cup win also punctuated a vibrant second half of the 2023 season for the Sailors. While they could not knock Albirex Niigata (Singapore) off the top of the SPL perch, they nonetheless finished as runners-up comfortably, before earning two wins in the AFC Champions League - including a 2-0 upset of nine-time K-League champions Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors last month.
"We got the job done," said their head coach Aleksandar Rankovic. "We've got a very good group of players, and we didn’t allow our opponents a shot on target until the end. This was a win we deserved.
"But these past few months are a foundation for us to build towards next season. Of course, the ultimate goal is to win the league, and we hope this group of players will be around to help us achieve our target."
Hougang head coach Marko Kraljevic was aggrieved by the contentious penalty that undid Hougang's soak-and-strike strategy, but could not fault his players' valiant efforts.
"Two cup finals in two years means we have a good organisation within the club, and we will speak with our players in the coming days and see if they want to continue playing for Hougang. Hopefully we can build upon this good run," he said.
Match turned on controversial penalty
The Sailors trotted out the same starting line-up that beat Tampines 3-0 in the second leg of the semi-finals on Wednesday. That means a spot for 15-year-old midfielder Nathan Mao on the left wing, a proud moment for the youngster to be standing alongside top teammates such as Hariss Harun, Maxime Lestienne and Richairo Zivkovic.
Meanwhile, Hougang seemed content with a defensive formation, fielding a staggering seven players who could be considered defenders as they sat back in midfield, absorbing pressure before trying to release forwards Sahil Suhaimi and in-form Dorde Maksimovic.
That meant the Sailors could enjoy the lion's share of possession, as their key playmakers Lestienne and Diego Lopes pushed and probed patiently around the swarming Hougang defenders.
Any hopes Hougang had of frustrating their opponents all game were thwarted in the 22nd minute, when Zivkovic deftly flicked on a cross from the left flank, and the ball appeared to have cannoned off the arm of Naoki Kuriyama. A lengthy video assistant referee (VAR) check ensued, before referee Andrea Verolino confirmed the penalty and Zivkovic coolly slotted the spot-kick into the bottom left corner in the 27th minute.
A goal behind, and Hougang tried to come out of their shell, but found no way past the Sailors' Bailey Wright and Lionel Tan, who marshalled Sahil and Maksimovic expertly in central defence. And with reigning SPL Player of the Year Lestienne around, the Sailors knew that he could turn on the style at any moment.
That moment came in the 42nd minute, as the Belgian winger drifted wide, then suddenly cut in and launched a speculative attempt from just inside the box. Hougang goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam looked likely to save the shot, but the luckless Kuriyama deflected Lestienne's goal-bound shot away from Zaiful and into the net, and Hougang players slumped to the ground in despair.
With their two-goal advantage, the Sailors were content to sit back and be the ones soaking up the pressure, as Hougang tried to mount a comeback. As the Cheetahs huffed and puffed to no avail, Lestienne applied the coup de grace in the 81st minute, slipping an inch-perfect for substitute Shawal Anuar to break the offside trap. The Singapore international striker made no mistake with a crisp shot past Zaiful.
Japanese import Kazuma Takayama headed home Hougang's consolation goal a minute into stoppage time.
"The team stepped up when it mattered, even the younger players like Nathan," said Sailors captain Hariss, who was named Man of the Match. "I’m happy and proud to win my first Singapore Cup title in my first final, but what we also want is to win the league again.”
In the earlier third/fourth-place playoff, Tampines Rovers defeated Brunei DPMM FC 2-0 with goals from Boris Kopitovic (10th minute) and Faris Ramli (31st).
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