Soccer

Football: Lion City Sailors sweating over Plazibat's fitness as SPL title race heats up

SINGAPORE – Down the final stretch of the Singapore Premier League (SPL) season, Lions City Sailors’ hunt for their first title was handed a boost on Tuesday (Nov 17) as they ran out 3-1 winners against Hougang United.

But they will be sweating over the fitness of their league top scorer Stipe Plazibat (14 goals), who was withdrawn by coach Aurelio Vidmar in the 38th minute as a precaution for a “hamstring pinch”.

With five games remaining over the next 14 days, including Sunday’s high-stakes clash against Albirex Niigata, Vidmar is adopting a wait-and-see approach over the next few days.

“Of course, it will be a big loss for us if Stipe cannot play, but we also have players who are ready to step up when called upon,” he said.

The Sailors are currently third on the table, with the top two spots occupied by Albirex and Tampines Rovers, who beat Balestier Khalsa 2-0 and Young Lions 3-1 respectively in matches elsewhere on Tuesday.

Albirex lead the SPL on goal difference as they and Tampines have 20 points from nine games, with the Sailors three points back.

Geylang International overtook Hougang for fourth place after beating Tanjong Pagar United 2-1 on Tuesday.

At Hougang Stadium, the Cheetahs expectedly set up shop to frustrate, starting with a five-man defence and without a natural striker.

They could have taken a surprise lead in the 11th minute when Hafiz Abu Sujad was released by Fabian Kwok on the left, only to be closed down quickly by Sailors goalkeeper Hassan Sunny.

Their profligacy was punished just one minute later when Gabriel Quak picked himself up after being fouled by Charlie Machell to plant a free-kick beyond Ridhuan Barudin.

Despite making several big saves, Ridhuan could do nothing to stop the Sailors from expanding their lead with a sweeping move in the 58th minute when Hafiz Nor polished off Aqhari Abdullah’s square pass.

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Shahdan Sulaiman killed off the tie by heading into an unguarded net in the 86th minute after Quak’s shot was blocked, following a break led by substitute Shahril Ishak, before Hougang scored a consolation in added time through Machell’s penalty.

Vidmar said: “It was another super effort from the team, as we controlled large portions of the game. The players showed great determination and character on a heavy pitch.

“It’s good to see Hafiz score his first goal of the season, and Shahdan, Gabriel and Shahril all involved in the goals. The important thing for us now is to recover well for Sunday’s game.”

Hougang coach Clement Teo also praised the Sailors frontline and said: “We cannot deny they have quality attackers, and once they get the opening goal, opponents who open up to try and equalise tend to get punished.”

Analysis

Depending on the extent of Plazibat’s injury, Vidmar will have a big decision to make in five days when they face Albirex.

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If the Sailors want to go for the SPL title, the game is a must-win, and Plazibat’s presence will be a boost as he is pretty much the league’s best with his goals and assists.

The flip side is, there is a considerable risk of aggravating his strained hamstring, which could rule him out of another big match against Tampines Rovers on Dec 2.

This latter game will most likely decide who represents Singapore in the AFC Champions League group stage next year.

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