Pudgy Penguins demonstrated just why they were defending S-League champions today, as they held off a spirited reverse by the Birds with evident class. Italian striker Barnaba Irace certainly exuded it as he collected a magnificent hat-trick, while Grilled could do little but bemoan the long-term injury that goalkeeper Wong Tian Han
suffered, though the game was decided by then.
With Penguins having navigated their first four league matches perfectly, the only chink in their armour was shown up by Argentine cupwinners Troncos de Tandil FC in the midweek Hattrick Masters, where they were beaten in extra time by gritty counterattacking. This style of play was, unfortunately, not in Grilled's repertoire, and it was mostly the usual suspects, other than for Clément Meyer
again getting in ahead of Low Aik Jia
on the wing, and Lee Lee Hao
taking over Ling Fuquan
at the back.
For their part, Penguins persisted with the 3-5-2, signalling an open match. This was just what the Birds were after, but they were soon to be reminded of just what the hosts had in the bag. There seemed little danger when Gene Filippone
lofted a standard crossfield pass to Lee in the sixth minute... except that Irace was expecting it, and sprang up at just the right instant to beat Wong Tian Han
with a mid-air strike.
The Igloo Dome will likely not see a more inventive goal for the remainder of the season, and it was just the medicine the Penguins needed to really get going. Grilled were, for once, doing the chasing in midfield as Penguins' slippery homegrown skipper Jian Xiaonan called the shots, and the former national player pulled the strings for their second. Relying on his almost supernatural understanding with fellow former trainee Mo Yeng Meng, he sent the latter totally clear after 22 minutes, and Mo couldn't miss from such an opening.
The Birds were, if not shellshocked, operating at below their usual capacity, but at least one of their number remained mostly unaffected by the odds against them. Say what you want about Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
's oversized ego, but it sure comes in very useful in trying times such as this. Picking it up in front of sweeper Giorgio Polani, Mohd Safri shimmied and swerved past the Italian, and went on to put it past one of Penguins' newest signings, the Iraqi national goalie Darawan Balikân.
In a game where the keepers had yet to make much of an impact, Wong Tian Han
finally got some respect for the position in the 37th minute, when he flew across goal to get to József Náray's sweetly-struck grounder. On hindsight, the Grilled medical staff should have noticed when Wong gingerly touched his knee after that massive dive, but then again, it was not as if there was much of an option.
Grilled then got back level through Zhu Changchun
as Wong Ping Shun
put one of his welcoming crosses in at just the right height, but the Birds didn't even have time to celebrate properly, when Penguins' U-20 star Li Li Long flitted beyond their complacent backline to make it 3-2 going into the break.
The Birds could still be hopeful at this point, and they were in fact doing rather better than most of the visitors to the Dome. The teams were actually quite finely matched in their various matchups, and defenders Gene Filippone
and József Náray would soon have be booked for some dubious defensive tactics.
The home advantage would prove telling for Penguins, and a few minutes later, Irace was at it again. Lee Lee Hao
was a fine player, but not quite a natural defender, and he let the Italian peel free from him - a fatal mistake. Irace carried the ball some distance inside the penalty area before unleashing a precise grounder, that Wong Tian Han
nearly, but not quite, managed to push aside.
This would be a double whammy for Grilled, as not only were the Penguins two goals up one again, Wong was rolling into his own net in clear agony. Club medic Ian Chuang was up in a flash, and after not being able to soothe Wong by any other means, had to shoot him up with morphine. Wong would obviously not be able to continue, and a slightly unsure-looking Krystian Rykowski
would make his second S-League appearance.
The Pole actually did little wrong in the circumstances, and he could hardly be blamed for letting Irace's pinpoint 82nd minute effort get by him, which was more than a little ironic as he had just been carded. Chow Ying Lee
gave his all at the other end, but would not be able to emulate Irace, other than in getting booked.