Ying Lee Decider
The Birds navigated their toughest test of the Ruby Challenger Cup thus far, as they were taken to extra time by a battling United Warrior Team, who twice came from behind. It came down to Chow Ying Lee
to again find that little bit more to get Grilled through, as they set up an all-II.2 grand finals against The Void Deck.
Grilled had met the Warriors eight times before, all in the S-League, but they then went their own way, not meeting for the past eighteen seasons. Much like the Birds, the Warriors did the tour of the Division Two leagues, with some visits further down, and are now established quite comfortably in II.1.
United Warrior Team had been on an eight-match unbeaten run under Spanish head coach Juan Antonio Zuazo's famously balanced style, with Italian withdrawn forward Ivano Gogliucci hitting a hat-trick against Blackburn Rovers Fan in the lead-up to the game. Unsurprisingly, he was selected to start today, but as a lone striker, as Zuazo decreed that they play on the counter.
It wasn't a bad call considering the personnel that they had, but even with four top defenders, they soon found that Grilled's ability to play it through the centre was second to none on their day. Claudio Boschetto was a fine centreback in the best of the classic Italian mould, but he had no answer to Tian Yonghang
stooping across him and exploding foward as Zhu Changchun
released it. The Grilled end of Hell chair staters responded enthusiastically, and Tian's chip over the opposing skipper was indeed exquisite.
Tian was proving a major irritant to the disciplined but slightly rigid Warrior backline, and their setback was compounded when he went over in the 17th minute, after running into former Liechtenstein national youth defender Stefan Somma's outstretched arm. The Warriors players protested mightily after Turkish referee Erdem Ege blew for the penalty, and they could have been right, but Wong Ping Shun
nevertheless put it perfectly into the top corner from the spot.
The slightly fortunate two-goal cushion took the edge off Grilled's attack though, and the mistakes piling up prompted Djan Bacelar
to gesture furiously from the sidelines. Zhao Jing Wei
somehow escaped censure after clipping Xie Chi Huat on the knee, and the blessings only continued as Woon Shun An
was gifted a clear path to goal after Boschetto made a rare missed intercept.
This however marked a turning point, as the S$14.3 million rated Marcel Liefke demonstrated why he commanded such a hefty price tag, but not only getting Woon's strike under control, but finding national winger Fang Yongkun with his next kick. Relieved at finally getting to run with the ball, Fang left Clément Meyer
eating his dust, and the deadly Gogliucci coolly opened his stride to put it exactly between Wong Tian Han
and his left post.
There was then an anxious few minutes, after Mohd Safri bin Mohd Safri's boot found the face of Somma, as the two went for a dropping ball. Mohd Safri was surrounded by half the Warriors team, as the other half went to press Ege into dismissing him; they were to be disappointed as Ege determined that it was a legal waist-high kick, but the tension dissipated somewhat after Somma sat groggily up. Of course, there was no way he could have continued, and veteran backup Sim Chu Chun entered in his place.
Grilled began the second half brightly with a spectacular effort from Zhu that whizzed barely over, but that first flush was soon over as the Warriors proved hungrier. Zuazo was plotting all along, and six minutes was enough for him to decide to take it to the Birds. H Pasupuleti came on to partner Gogliucci, while Xie Chi Huat moved further out wide, double-teaming the already-stressed Meyer.
The changes worked like magic, and Warriors found themselves level in no time. Most of the Grilled team was drawn over as Xie and Fang ripping it up down the left, and Fang repeated his earlier assist almost exactly. Gene Filippone
kept enough wits about him to shadow Gogliucci, but was still cut ahead of by the wily Italian, who evened it all up.
The match had begun to heat up again, and within two minutes, Meyer had restored Grilled's lead with an impressive skimming grounder. It was shortly cancelled out by Claudio Boschetto as Liefke made another of his booming bombardments after saving from Tian, though, and the prize of a finals place once again hung in the balance.
With extra time looming, Bacelar saw fit to make his first tactical adjustment, and he took the overworked Meyer off for a very eager Low Aik Jia
. For once, Fang found his match pace-wise, and with Warriors having a taste of their own medicine down that flank, Grilled began to ease their way into control once more.
After the brief interruption of full-time, the brilliance of Bacelar's switch truly told. As Low absorbed Warriors' full attention, Wong Ping Shun
was in the clear to receive a sweeping cross-field pass from Zhao, and he together with Chow Ying Lee
sprung the opponents' offside trap for the latter to make it 4-3.
This was too much for Hungarian ex-international Bence Kaposvári to take, and he impulsively ran ahead of Chow to boot the ball away. This got him a yellow, to the disapproval of the Warriors fans. Despite this, Zuazo was unperturbed, having been in this position already, and with his third and last substitution made the brave move of withdrawing the effective Gogliucci for countryman Claudio Nacci.
It very nearly came off again, with the fresh Nacci actually getting it into the net in the 107th minute, only for the goal to be disallowed due to his clipping Wong Tian Han
in the process. Suffice to say that Ege was not getting much love from the enraged Warriors support by now, but the referee carried on his business impassively.
In the end, Chow's goal proved the only one of the extra thirty minutes, and Bacelar was not above using his remaining subs to eat away the final minute.