SINGAPORE – A week ago, it was smooth sailing for the Lion City Sailors as they held a three-point lead and healthy goal difference against second-placed Albirex Niigata.
But last Sunday (Sept 4), that advantage atop the Singapore Premier League 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 defend 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 know 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 towards 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 accepted responsibility and admitted he may have pushed his players a little too hard at training before the Geylang match but said the Sailors are committed to their style of attacking football.
“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 to it,” he said.
Goalkeeper Hassan Sunny added: “This is why we have a big squad with good players, and this is the best chance for them to prove themselves.”
Looking to make the Sailors seasick by ending a run of three 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 was fireworks the last time both clubs met – a touchline bust-up between former Sailors coach Kim Do-hoon and Tampines assistant coach Mustafic Fahrudin seven weeks ago. Both men were fined and suspended, with Kim leaving the Sailors shortly after.