Grilled Birds finally stemmed their bleeding of points with a 4-2 home win against the fabled Isle of Flames, which was in actuality much closer than the final two-goal margin would suggest. Former Austrian youth international Ervin Lakatos was a source of strength for Flames throughout, as he kept them in contention with his unbridled tactical marshalling. Unfortunately for the visitors, Lakatos would not be able to hold out till the end, and this opened the way for the Birds to ring up a decisive fourth.
Despite being the top two extant Singaporean clubs in terms of S-League appearances, this would only be the sixth top-flight meeting between them. While Grilled could claim to have the upper hand in the current era, having won the last three, Isle of Flames have proven only too happy to punish any hint of being underrated by opponents. Though Pudgy Penguins might not have made that error last week, they were nevertheless well beaten by a Richard Stetson double.
All eyes at The Cooking Pot were as a result fixated on the Canadian, but it didn't take long for them to recognize that it was his strike partner who would steal the show today. Lakatos might have played second fiddle to the rather more eye-catching Stetson since his arrival, but there was no doubting his reading of the flow. After twelve minutes of standing off, Finnish left winger Antti Kärkkäinen burnt Wong Ping Shun
for sheer pace, and Lakatos made sure to create the angle for the pass to come in.
This was hard to swallow given the reverses that Grilled had suffered over the past fortnight, and one could hardly blame some fans from glumly considering a spluttering end to their once-promising title bid.
The chips would not be down for long, however, as the Birds' Captain Fantastic stepped up to the plate. It has been a very hectic season indeed for the 32 year-old Tian Yonghang
, but his humble water-carrying in the youth side has laid the foundations for an uncommon endurance. Tangling up Bronisław Zolich, Tian then released it to French midfielder Clément Meyer
, who promptly equalised.
That certainly perked the crowd up, and the renewed chanting had barely reached a crescendo when Tian himself did the honours. Isle of Flames are rightly famed for their extreme organization, but there was nothing at all in the books on how to counter Tian's unorthodox turn and chip. Jerome Wiles may have been a regular for the Trinidad & Tobago national team, but that was beyond his paygrade.
Chow Ying Lee
then crashed a third through the middle for good measure, and Flames were on the ropes. Wiles' remonstrations to the linesman about restarting before his teammates were ready, although not overturning Chow's strike, was enough to buy them time to regroup properly. For the rest of the half, Isle of Flames were their usual inscrutable selves, and with Giscard Van Dyck dropping back to keep tabs on Tian, Grilled would not have any further shots on target.
Low Aik Jia
, who had been given a rare start, was withdrawn in favour of Lee Lee Hao
providing additional reinforcement after the break. The fans would soon have cause to wonder whether Low's willingness to push forward had an unseen effect on the balance of Grilled's games, though, as Lajos Rajeczki seemed to have quite a bit more space to attack, after the substitution.
As it was, Lee's constant drift to the inside eventually cleared the way for Rajeczki to make one of his runs hugging the touchline, and Flames found a path back in the 59th minute. Woon Shun An
's discomfort as a stand-in defender told as he was caught hesitating over who to mark as Rajeczki's cross trundled in, and he wound up doing next to nothing as Marius-Ştefan Tufeanu sidled in from the other flank to ram it past Wong Tian Han
Although Flames were still one behind, it was Grilled who were looking by far the more worried, as they contemplated the possibility of again accidentally drawing, or worse. Their opponents in contrast were far more relaxed, and Lakatos in particular was keeping the Birds' defence on edge with his creativity. Ling Fuquan
was barely hanging on to him, and Djan Bacelar
was caught throwing furtive looks at Gene Filippone
, as if internally debating whether to get him on.
Bacelar must have been sorely tempted as Flames began to be increasingly dangerous, with Lakatos finding another level, even as the scorching sun took its toll on Chow Ying Lee
. There have been murmurs about the Grilled speedster's stamina during recent training sessions, which may have been why Rinor Isufi
is being eased into the rotation; Chow did little to dispel those rumours with a less-than-impressive attempt at a breakaway in the 67th minute, which allowed even Matthias Trémoulet - certainly not known for his speed - to catch up from behind.
Then, just when it seemed that Lakatos had to score sooner or later, his threat was extinguished. Ironically, it would be a direct result of his own sheer single-mindedness, as the normally-composed technician hurled himself at Ling's feet as the latter hit a clearance, earning himself a nasty facial gash. Referee Mark Landzaat was hard-pressed to censure Ling in the circumstances, and he got off scott-free with José Manuel Pozo having to come in for Lakatos.
The loss of their main driver only served to invigorate his comrades, however, and they forged ahead in search of at least a point. Grilled passed up a great opportunity to stuff it in the bag, when Zhu Changchun
smacked Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
's unselfish layoff into the post, which only gave the visitors renewed heart.
It was getting a bit dirty as the wily old foxes on both sides began ekeing out any advantage they could, but Chow would pay the price as his now-leaden feet would plow into Nic Schafrath obviously too late. That would earn him the first yellow of the match, and Flames head coach Bronisław Grzejda saw it as a sign to get supersub Quentin Debert on. Unfortunately for them, Pozo failed to connect with Per-Erik Strandheim's pinpoint long free-kick, and wound up being booked trying to retrieve it from Woon.
Sander Temmerman was deployed as Flames' third and last sub as they harboured hopes of a late leveller, which in truth seemed far from unlikely. The nerves at The Cooking Pot were calmed only after vice-captain Zhao Jing Wei
concluded an otherwise very low-key outing with his all-important insurance goal with two minutes left, as the former S-League winner with Arrogancae found a gap at Wiles' far post.
Undaunted, Belgian playmaker Giscard Van Dyck fought to the last and managed a breathtaking curler from just outside the Grilled penalty area in time added on, but Wong Tian Han
was equal to it with a no less fabulous save.