Lion City Sailors can reflect on AFC Champions League debut with pride but must make sure they are back

Lion City Sailors claimed a creditable seven-point haul in their debut AFC Champions League campaign, with a landmark win over Daegu followed by four points from two games against Shandong Taishan. Pakawich Damrongkiattisak/Getty Images

A maiden voyage for Lion City Sailors among Asia's elite in the AFC Champions League may ultimately have not ended in the hoped destination of the knockout round.

Yet, there is much for the Singapore Premier League champions to look back on with pride.

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Their seven-point haul -- which included a historic first-ever win over Daegu -- was the most of any Singaporean side ever in tournament history.

Even though they were to be beaten in their return encounter against Daegu on Saturday, which consigned them to a third-place finish in Group F and end their hopes of advancing, it was another creditable display against seasoned campaigners who have now reached the Round of 16 in back-to-back years.

When the dust eventually settles, it is also imperative that LCS ensure their ACL exploits in 2022 is not merely a sojourn among Asia's elite but the first port-of-call in a long journey.

And while they will hope to return stronger and more experienced, the tasks that lie ahead will also get tougher.

With the Chinese Super League sides opting to send understrength teams for a second year running, the Sailors were able to pick up four points in their matches against Shandong Taishan (which really should have been six but for a 0-0 draw in their opening encounter that they should have won).

It is only a matter of time before Chinese outfits start fielding their strongest teams again and, at their best, they were capable of going all the way as Guangzhou showed in 2013 and 2015.

Had that been the case this year, it would not just have been two formidable opponents -- Daegu and Urawa Red Diamonds -- but three that the LCS would have been up against. While purely conjecture, those seven points are likely to have been reduced.

But in their victory over Daegu, the Sailors showed that they do have what it takes to measure up against the bigger boys of Asian football.

With the benefit of experience and perhaps a few reinforcements, they should be looking to follow the example of Johor Darul Ta'zim from neighbouring Malaysia -- who finally advanced to the knockout round three years on from making their competition debut in 2019.

The first item on the agenda however is to get back into the ACL once more.

LCS are favourites to win the Singapore Premier League once more in 2022 and, as things stand, hold a four-point lead at the top although three-quarters of the season remain and they should face a stern challenge from Albirex Niigata (S), Tampines Rovers and even surprise package Tanjong Pagar United.

There is also the ever-evolving AFC Club Competitions Ranking, which determine which nations get direct access to the ACL group stage and which have to go through the qualifying playoffs.

For the past two years, the Singapore Premier League has had an automatic berth but that could change in the 2023-24, although there is the likelihood of higher-ranked member associations missing out due to the Asian Football Confederation's club licensing regulations (For instance, in the case of North Korea's absence this season).

All of that will be resolved in due course.

The fact of the matter is that, following a respectable debut appearance, it is imperative for the Sailors to ensure it is not a one-off.

And the thing that is within their control is ensuring they have the best possible chance of returning next season by going all out to retain the SPL crown this year.