What could have been a triumphal parade became a funeral cortege, as the visiting Shining Lights collapsed Grilled's claim to their first S-League title in three fell shots. There would have been no more fitting way for the face of the club Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
to mark his three hundredth official start, than to lift the trophy that had eluded the Birds for so long before his home fans - but, as had already occured several times before, the curse of the S-League evidently had not been lifted.
On the face of it, Grilled had good reason to be confident - while Lights had been impressive in their win against BCFC, they had not been particularly good travelers, having lost four and drawn one of their last five away matches in the league. Unfortunately, Grilled could not be at full strength with Chow Ying Lee
's late booking last weekend disqualifying him, and Rinor Isufi
would take his place.
Other than the breakup of the magnificent trio, there were few big concerns, and Low Aik Jia
again got the shaft as Djan Bacelar
again prescribed a tucked left wing. As for Shining Lights, they adapted with Robbie Dang and Idris Kamil shoring up central defence, and Lim Boon Guang pulled double duty as a midfield shield.
The mathematics were clear - win this, and the title was Grilled's, as long as Pudgy Penguins failed to win at United Warrior Team. It was thus no surprise that the Birds would go for the outright kill, once referee Christophe Uren blew for kick-off.
Lights were well aware of this too, and they immediately unveiled their secret strategy - an all-out press. It was possible that they had observed signs of exhaustion in Grilled's previous few games, and sought to avail of this vulnerability. And, as it happened, they had hit the nail on the head.
It was not so evident at the beginning, as the Birds drew on the near-record crowd's encouragement, to throw themselves at Lights' backline - which held firm. Rinor Isufi
was soon found to be slightly out of sync, and he triggered a couple of offsides where Chow might not have. However, his partiality to the early run did win the Birds a fortunate penalty, as he drew Kamil into giving him a beefy bump, that he made the most of. Former Romanian youth international Uwe-Hellmuth Ledin guessed correctly off Wong Ping Shun
's decent if slightly reserved conversion attempt, however, and it all went downhill for Grilled from there.
There was no question that Lights had the ability to score, and while there were groans when wingback Nikola Aranđelović skipped by Zhao Jing Wei
to make it one-nil in the 28th minute, the Grilled fans were not too disheartened yet. The Birds were still coming close, with Tian sniping one not too high over the crossbar not long before that; Clément Meyer
then rolled his ankle making a rushed pass, though, and on hindsight this was probably the catalyst for the Birds' defeat.
While Meyer has not been rated especially highly by Grilled followers in general, expert consensus has been that he has been among their top midfield performers this season, and his affinity towards challenging high balls is an oft-overlooked component of the Birds' mixed style. More directly, Meyer's slip meant that the ball was lost right in front of the Grilled penalty area, and Lights were not about to let that go. Skipper Othmane Majdawi played it on for Mongolian legend Tortulga Qutugh despite entreaties from Ling Fuquan
to pause play, and Majdawi hammed it unstoppably past Wong Tian Han
It began to dawn on the bulk of the spectators that their team could be in real trouble, and their fears were realised as Clark Won
came on and, like Isufi, did little more than to provide another warm body. He should not be criticized too harshly given that his teammates were not exactly full of ideas either, but it remained that his cautious sideways passing, and lack of forward movement, were not about to help Grilled overturn a two-goal deficit anytime soon.
Shining Lights in contrast were brimming with confidence as they saw their own title chances soar, and despite outrunning the Birds quite substantially for the half, they were clearly the perkier of the sides as they trooped off for the break.
There was some drama as Low Aik Jia
appeared to corner an assistant coach on the way to the changing room, but Zhao Jing Wei
immediately intervened, and together with a couple of quick-thinking staff members, hustled Low aside. In any case, Low's rather forceful appeals did not have an impact, and the impatient winger would return straight to the bench for the second half of the match.
Despite it being, as Djan Bacelar
had emphasized so often in the build-up, likely the most significant game of their careers, it slowly began to dawn that the Grilled men had little left to give. Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
did not hesitate to try all of his tricks on Robbie Dang whenever he could, but being well on the wrong side of thirty, those hard-won inches and half-yards did not translate into a winning advantage, as they should have just a few years back.
Then, in the 55th minute, Grilled promptly self-destructed as Jindřich Ženíšek bombed down the right side to score a third. Lee Lee Hao
had matched the Czech attacking midfielder step for step, but never found the extra second needed to put in a proper tackle. The visiting stands exploded at that, and Wong Tian Han
's body language was not good, to say the least, as he turned to retrieve the ball.
If the Grilled support had expected at least a hell of a struggle before the end, they would be further disappointed. Shining Lights capitalized on their stamina advantage to smother threats out long before they developed, and despite not being as scarily mobile as they were in the first half, they were arguably even more effective as they figured out the Birds' movement patterns.
With little to lose, Clark Won
began trying to force matters as Grilled's routine of distributing it about in midfield, before going for a through ball, was getting all too obvious. Lim Boon Guang read his plays near-perfectly, however, and although Tian Yonghang
dropped yet deeper to try and provide the desperately-needed link, this only resulted in the remaining forwards being double-teamed whenever they became a potential passing target.
The faithful could barely watch as the visitors slowly but firmly snuffed the lights out of their team's last rattling throes, and when Ledin knocked Zhu Changchun
's magnificent effort aside in the 81st minute, it was clear that the Birds would not be favoured on this day.