Unstoppable for Lion City Sailors, Maxime Lestienne will show no fear in AFC Champions League return

Having starred in the Singapore Premier League this season with a competition-high 25 goals and 21 assists, Maxime Lestienne will now turn his attentions to helping Lion City Sailors make an impact in the 2023-24 AFC Champions League campaign. Lion City Sailors FC

Effortlessly brimming with confidence, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Maxime Lestienne's demeanour off the field is exactly the same as it is on the pitch.

And for good reason.

Since joining Lion City Sailors at the start of 2022, Lestienne has spent the last two seasons establishing himself as a genuine star in the Singapore Premier League.

Already, pundits and fans alike have labelled him one of the best imports to ever grace the competition -- in spite of the fact that he has not been around for the longest of spells.

After an already-brilliant first season with the Sailors, Lestienne took his game to a whole new level this year.

His competition-leading 21 assists in the recently-concluded SPL season may not come as a surprise although it is undeniably an impressive tally, but where he really stood out was in him also claiming the top scorer accolade with 25 goals -- even though he is not an out-and-out striker but rather a wide attacker.

While the Sailors would once again suffer the disappointment of losing out to Albirex Niigata (S) in the title race for a second successive campaign, Lestienne gave their fans plenty to cheer time and time again.

Be it an outside-foot pass slide-rule pass that would take the entire opposition defence out of the equation before precisely spinning back into the path of a teammate at the last moment, or a trademark drop of the shoulder to cut inside for his left foot to find the far corner with an exquisite curler, the Belgian has been a one-man highlight reel.

He has done all of that with an air of nonchalance but also surety.

And as the Sailors prepare for their sophomore season in the Asia's premier club competition -- starting with their 2023-24 AFC Champions League opener against Bangkok United on Wednesday -- these same traits come to the fore in the way Lestienne is approaching another foray into continental football.

"We should not think about (whether there are) small or big teams," he told ESPN, with regards to the fact the Sailors might -- on paper, at least -- still be viewed as minnows of the competition.

"We just need to focus and do our jobs. I think we have enough quality. In football, you never know.

"Everyone says Jeonbuk (Hyundai Motors) are the favourites in our group. For me, there are no favourites.

"We cannot be scared of this or that team -- we don't have to be scared. We have to go and prove we have enough quality, and we have to believe -- this is the most important.

"We did well to get seven points last year so I think this year we won't be a surprise anymore. Other teams now know about Lion City."

The Sailors did indeed give a creditable account of themselves on debut in last season's ACL, pulling off a remarkable 3-0 win over South Korea's Daegu FC and also picking up four points against a below-strength Shandong Taishan.

Unwilling to rest on their laurels, LCS have bolstered their ranks significantly since then.

Porto academy graduate Rui Pires was signed earlier this year solely for the ACL. The tournament's increased limit of six imports in a team -- two more than that of the SPL -- also means the Sailors will be able to call upon the domestically-unregistered Manuel Herrera, Pedro Henrique and Kodai Tanaka, in addition to their usual quartet of Lestienne, Diego Lopes, Bailey Wright and Richairo Zivkovic.

And Group F promising to be keenly-contested -- with Jeonbuk the favourites to finish top but with LCS, Bangkok United and Hong Kong's Kitchee all looking evenly matched -- the ACL offers both the Sailors and Singaporean football a chance to see where they stand in the continent.

Not that Lestienne, who can count Serie A, LaLiga and the Eredivisie among his former homes, needs to prove anything to anyone.

"Test myself? I don't have to test myself," he said, with a wry grin.

"I've already tested myself before -- in the (UEFA) Champions League and Europa League. "I know what I can do and my qualities, and I also know that sometimes I may play badly or well.

"I don't care who I play against - I just give my best all the time. I'm 31 years and I think I don't have to show to everyone what I can do. I think they know what I can do.

"But I'm more a player that plays for the team, not for myself. I'm a winner and I give my best all the time.

"If we all do the same, we have a chance."

While the ACL offers the Sailors a chance to bounce back from their domestic disappointment, Lestienne is also almost certain to receive more consolation when the SPL's end-of-season awards are given out -- with him being the front-runner for the Player of the Year prize he was unlucky to miss out on last season.

Yet, for all this individual flair and showmanship, his team-first attitude makes it obvious which Lestienne would prefer to make up for them missing out on the league title.

"This year, and I think last year as well, I deserved to be the Player of the Year," the 31-year-old stated candidly. Honestly, this year if I don't win, it's life - life's like this.

"I prefer to win the title than be the Player of the Year or best scorer or the (player with the) most assists -- I really don't care. I play for team, and I think I'm a good player because I play for the team and they play for me too.

"(We're) so disappointed about the title -- we didn't win last year as well. That was the objective but now, because we have the best fans in Singapore, we have to give back what they give to us.

"Maybe we have to forget this year, take all the positives and forget all the negatives.

"I think we still have a little bit of pain about (losing) the title but now we have a good tournament to show everyone we deserve something (from this year)."