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Sailors counting on Maxime Lestienne, Diego Lopes to overcome Albirex

Maxime Lestienne is the SPL’s top scorer with 10 goals and top assist maker with nine assists. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE – As a Belgian, Maxime Lestienne’s main languages are Dutch and French. His Lion City Sailors teammate Diego Lopes, a Brazilian, speaks mostly Portuguese.

But the language barrier has hardly affected their telepathy on the pitch.

Last week, they clicked into gear in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) match against Brunei DPMM, combining for all three goals in a pulsating 3-3 draw. Lestienne is the SPL’s top scorer with 10 goals and top assist maker with nine assists while Lopes has three goals and eight assists.

That understanding on the pitch comes from a healthy bond they have developed off it. Amid regular meals at a Brazilian restaurant in Chinatown, they communicate in a “rojak” language comprising a mix of English, Spanish, Portuguese and sign language.

Lopes, 29, said via a translator: “We are good friends on and off the pitch. We go for dinner together at restaurants, we joke and we have a lot of fun. He (Lestienne) is a fun guy to be around.”

Their spontaneity is evident from their decision to dye their hair blonde before the 2-1 win over Geylang International two weeks ago.

“He wants to be like me,” said Lestienne, 30, with a chuckle.

To which Lopes admitted: “It was my idea to do this. We were here in the changing room and I said let’s cut our hair and let’s do blonde. We just decided like that and it wasn’t something planned.”

The Sailors will be hoping that the duo’s chemistry will give them an edge on Sunday when they meet league leaders Albirex Niigata, an opponent they have not beaten in the SPL in 10 attempts.

Lestienne, who played in five of those encounters, is determined to undo that record, saying: “We know Albirex is always difficult but we have enough quality to beat them. We cannot be scared of them. If we work together to pressure them, I believe they can be beaten.”

Sailors coach Risto Vidakovic said: “For us, the game against Albirex is practically a final. They have a very serious, professional team and in every position they have good players. But we have to try playing our style no matter who we’re facing to prove we can compete.”

A win for Vidakovic’s third-placed Sailors will reduce their gap on Albirex to just one point, although the Japanese side still have a game in hand.

If things go their way, both Lestienne and Lopes will hope to play prominent roles in the Sailors’ title challenge beyond this term. Both their contracts expire after this season.

Lestienne said: “My agent already spoke to the club so now I can say nothing, but I feel really good in terms of my physical condition even though I’m 30.

“I feel very happy here and my goal is to help the Sailors win some silverware. If the club wants me to stay, I can stay a few more years. Why not?”

The Straits Times understands negotiations with the club are set to begin by next month.

Lopes, who is also in the final year of his three-year deal, added: “My first option is to stay here and continue with the club. I like the city, country and the climate is good.

“I hope that Max has the same idea as me so we can continue to grow together.”

Geylang v Tanjong Pagar (Sunday, 6pm, Our Tampines Hub)

Tanjong Pagar are in abject form after four consecutive defeats and will face a tough test in Geylang, who will be fired up to bounce back from narrow defeats by Sailors and Hougang. The fifth-placed Eagles were unlucky in both encounters, missing many key chances, and should have the upper hand at home against a struggling Jaguars side lying in seventh.