Historic feat still within Lion City Sailors' reach ahead of AFC Champions League farewell

Should they beat Kitchee on Wednesday, Lion City Sailors will make history as their nine-point haul would be the most by any Singaporean team in the history of the AFC Champions League. Yu Chun Christopher Wong/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

As their 2023-24 AFC Champions League campaign comes to a close on Wednesday, Lion City Sailors are preparing to bid farewell to top-tier continental football -- at least for the next couple of seasons or so.

With the Asian Football Confederation revamping its club competition format at the end of the current season, the new premier competition will come in the form of the AFC Champions League Elite -- which will see it shrink from a 40-team tournament to one consisting of just 24 competitors.

The reduction in size means that less countries will be represented in the ACLE and, at present, only clubs from Japan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Australia and Malaysia will participate in the East Asia Zone of the competition come the middle of 2024.

Instead, countries like Singapore will have to settle for the AFC Champions League 2, which -- while still prestigious in name and also boasting representatives from the leading nations -- will essentially be the continent's second-tier competition.

The allocation of spots in either competition is regularly updated based on the AFC's club competitions rankings, so it is very possible for Singaporean football to climb back to the top level.

For now, though, with the Sailors already out of the running to advance to the knockout round, their Group F finale against Hong Kong's Kitchee on Wednesday evening looms as the last time a team from Singapore will feature in Asia's leading club competition for the foreseeable future.

Yet, while the tie is essentially a dead rubber -- with Kitchee also already eliminated -- there is still plenty for the Sailors to play for with a chance to make history in front of them.

Even last term, in their debut ACL campaign, the Sailors' two wins, one draw and three defeats was enough to set a new record points tally by a Singaporean team in the competition.

Having already notched victories over Kitchee and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors earlier in this season's group stage, with the latter over the two-time continental champions a particular monumental triumph, LCS can bow out on a high by setting a new record of nine points.

The potential achievement was not lost on Sailors coach Aleksandar Ranković, who -- when asked by ESPN on the significance of the potential achievement -- replied: "(This is) very important.

"We want to leave our legacy. We can make history.

"If we win (on Wednesday), we'll have the most points from all the (Singaporean) teams that have played in the Champions League. That's our motivation.

"Like the players, I'm very disappointed we cannot play in this competition next season. Our motivation is to finish strong in front of our supporters and, like always, to represent Singapore football."

Fresh off a Singapore Cup triumph on Saturday and with a chance to make history in the ACL on Wednesday, Ranković -- who only took over at the helm midway through the campaign following the departure of Risto Vidaković -- believes the club can look back on 2023 as a success even if they failed to land the coveted Singapore Premier League title.

That will however be the main target come next season, and Ranković also believes playing in ACL2 could also raise expectations on the continental front.

"Obviously, I came in the middle of the season when we were in third place -- our main goal then was to finish second, because that would bring us to the ACL2 for next season, which we achieved," explained the Serbian tactician.

"(Winning the) Singapore Cup was also a big achievement for this club. We couldn't have done more.

"We want to make history and, if we win tomorrow, it's also something that we can be proud of -- and I think it's a very successful season.

"Of course, we want to be (SPL) champions - that's our main goal for next season. We can build on this foundation.

"Not forgetting that we also have ten players playing for the (Singapore) national team. It was a really tough season for them and, for the way they came through it in the end, I can only be proud of them."