Ling Rings In
Grilled pulled out the stops in securing a forceful if not very aesthetic win against the visiting United Warrior Team, whose diligent close-quarters pressing granted the Birds little purchase for the first hour. The contest opened up appreciably after that, and Grilled grabbed the chance to put the game away.
The Warriors had come out on top in the Cup last season, avenging their loss in the same competition the edition before; prior to that, they had clashed with the Birds eight times in the S-League in the distant past, too long ago for any members of their current squads to have taken part.
They had additionally made a significant foray into the market in the past week, having sold Estonian former youth international wingback Ekke Kessel for S$7.2 million, to finance the S$8.7 million purchase of 28 year-old Scots striker Jordan McCleary. McCleary would make his debut to a very warm welcome from the away fans, alongside Czech Jáchym Vedral, himself not yet done with his first full season at the Warriors.
If there was one guy who hates having attention diverted from him, though, it would have to be Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
. Sources close to him have suggested that he was still sore at having been left out of the national World Cup squad, and he wasted no time in pressing his claim with a fine low drive after just three minutes.
Low Aik Jia
had supplied that one, and with Grilled's other regular winger Wong Ping Shun
watching from the VIP box, it fell to Low to provide the penetration. This he managed regularly despite the attentions of Alessandro Rapacchi, no slowpoke himself, and he might have had another assist if Chow Ying Lee
had been calmer with his effort in the tenth minute.
The Birds were themselves vulnerable on the flanks, and despite Woon Shun An
being tried out on the right, he proved no more adept in this position than Zhao Jing Wei
had been; national wingman Xie Chi Huat passed him all too often, and Italian midfielder Fabio Arce made the most of his 24th minute cross by arriving fashionably late and powering in a thundering header from outside the box.
Warriors sensed blood at their success, but the Birds responded with some rather crude challenges. Low and Lee Lee Hao
were booked in this pretty ugly conclusion to the half, which saw Mohd Safri slam a great opening off Gianluca Aurigemma, before McCleary blew his bid at a scoring debut as he delayed his strike for too long.
The match thus far had been marked by a robust physicality, which the Warriors turned out to have marshalled more effectively. Claudio Boschetto had been an absolute rock for them at the heart of their defence, and stopped more than one attack before it developed into something much more deadly.
Nevertheless, there was little that Boschetto, or anyone indeed, could have done when the game exploded after sixty minutes. The day had been begging for that one spark to set the quietly-piling tinder ablaze, and Grilled's newly-capped captain would be the one to apply the fire. Boschetto seemed to have him covered, but Tian wriggled half around him to send a magnificent volley beyond Marcel Liefke's stretching arms.
The uneasy stalemate was crumbling, and Warriors too began to let themselves loose, to good effect. Charging fearlessly right from the kick-off, they routed the Birds' hasty mustering at the back, and Gianluca Aurigemma dispatched a right-footed piledriver from all of twenty metres to level the accounts again.
It was end-to-end stuff now, and the visiting supporters had barely finished rising to their feet when the Birds were threatening their goal once more. For once, Boschetto was lured out of position to help out against Clément Meyer
's direct run, and this left Ling Fuquan
with an invitation to collect his first S-League goal, which he duly accepted. In fact, Ling's last league goal had come against Dream Seas in II.2, all of four seasons ago.
United Warrior Team tried to equalise the third time with the same shock tactics, but the Birds were finally onto them, and worked to slow the tempo down with well-timed fouls. It was the visitors' turn to be aggrieved at double-teaming, and unfortunately their key hope Jordan McCleary was not yet in tune with the rest of the team.
With defeat starting to stare them in the face, Warriors' Spanish head coach Juan Antonio Zuazo made his move after Chow Ying Lee
received the third yellow of the game - out went big Ján Reviľák, and in came Swiss Giovanbattista Formentin as a third forward.
Sadly, this ended up being their undoing, as Formentin had barely stepped on the pitch when Low made a break for it. Now a man down at the back, former Hungarian national player Bence Kaposvári tried but failed to shadow Tian Yonghang
as the Grilled skipper moved in Low's wake, and Tian indeed delivered the coup de grace with a single swipe.