A Bitter Pearl
Despite results elsewhere conspiring to hand the title to the Birds if they had won, a haggard Grilled selection managed no more than a damp squib, as they surrendered tamely to a Pearl Divers side that was hardly at their best either. The age that the players had masked so bravely through much of the campaign finally returned to haunt them, as Grilled's grand old seniors were left lying on the pitch after the end of it all, wondering what could have been.
Though the odds had shifted firmly in favour of Shining Lights after their victory last weekend, the Birds remained second favourites, all the more with United Warrior Team having shown their mettle fighting as the underdog more than once. With little to lose, Djan Bacelar
heeded the supporters' call, and unleashed Low Aik Jia
down the left, in an effort to chase goals; unfortunately, this would be one of those days where nothing would go his way.
This was evident from the fifteenth minute, as the Birds finally earned a free-kick on the edge of the Divers' penalty area, following much solid build-up in their final third. Wong Ping Shun
's cannonball appeared destined for the roof of the net... only for it to come off the crossbar with a vengeance. In the ensuing flurry of action, Talip Berfu nicked it away just as Tian Yonghang
threw himself at the rebound, and a heartbreaking slip by Ling Fuquan
gave Mosè Corghi a clear run on Wong Tian Han
It was a dagger blow to the Birds side, who knew that they needed every bit of goal difference they could eke out. Unfortunately, their paper-thin defence chose the worst of all days to assert itself, and Low Aik Jia
's eagerness to right the deficit backfired when he was stopped by Vano Adamiani. Appeals to the referee went nowhere, and when Gene Filippone
was forced to step in, this left Axel Mair with a free route to goal.
Their championship dreams in tatters, Grilled managed a weak reply through Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
's slightly petulant effort on their next attack, which seemed to be aimed more towards recording a shot on target than anything - certainly, Divers' new Bolivian goalie Gian Luca Gavanelli had little trouble with it, or indeed anything that followed in the first half.
While the news from Blackout Arena was likewise less than rosy for Lights, they at least had gotten one back, which the Birds never quite looked like doing. Other than Low and Chow Ying Lee
, the rest of Grilled's offensive unit simply looked dog-tired, and none of them got close to Jaques Genz in midfield. Rashid Postnikov spun one off Ling's knee in the 52nd minute to get the hosts a corner kick, from which Alfredo Gandarilla flew in to score, crashing it in off the crossbar.
The travelling Grilled fans had gone from horror to morbid fascination by now, all the more with even Tian Yonghang
, so often the inspiration for Grilled, clearly out of sorts. A couple of bad touches when it mattered informed all present that a comeback was probably not on the cards, and Postnikov happily put his stamp on that, with his incredible volley over the despairing Wong Tian Han
in the 72st minute.
Mohd Safri hadn't quite given up yet, but his pace, which while never excessive had been entirely respectable, was all but gone. A young Mohd Safri would likely have reached Low's ambitious through ball, but not this 33 year-old vintage with dodgy knees. The camera cut meaningfully to Rinor Isufi
on the bench at that, with the Albanian forward's face notably a total mask.
With his side so far ahead, Divers' head coach Nechifor Gherman had few qualms about saving Jimmy Ouyang after the former youth international hobbled away from Zhu Changchun
's painful ankle tap. Quite rightly, as it turned out, as Grilled would probably not have scored had the fixture gone on for another two hours. Low made his bid for a consolation goal, hurdling Theo Fels von Hartenstein spectacularly, but Gavanelli batted it aside. When Mohd Safri then skewed wide in front of an open goal, even the most ardent Birds fans had to admit that the game was up.
There was little left for Grilled but to wait for the end to come, and although new signing Hariharan Prabhu
put on his best smile when shaking Zhao Jing Wei
's hand coming on as part of a triple substitution, he could not quite hide his disappointment at how it had all gone wrong.