A Dusk Before
The Birds' preparations for their do-or-die Singapore Cup semifinal left much to be desired, as they fell 1-5 to defending league champions Shining Lights at Blackout Arena. To make matters worse, Gene Filippone
had to go off due to aggravated shin splints, and the only silver lining was Rinor Isufi
keeping it from being a whitewash with some individual skill.
With an eye on their undisputed game of the season, less a possible Cup final, Grilled head coach Djan Bacelar
staked his flagging reputation on a fresh-look lineup. Chow Ying Lee
and Wong Ping Shun
were notable absences, explained to be reserved for the semifinals in the match programme, and Hariharan Prabhu
made his long-awaited S-League starting debut alongside fellow next-generation midfielders Clark Won
and Ang Leong Kum
If this had been meant to be a gentle blooding-in of the newer guys, Grilled would soon find that they were badly mistaken. Shining Lights, while not quite recovered to the heights they had hit last term, remained formidable at home. Ivory Coast international winger Claude Caron would provide Ang with a huge defensive headache, and despite fullback Nikola Aranđelović suffering a leg injury from their midweek Emerald Challenger Cup defeat, Idris Kamil was a more than adequate stand-in.
It would be Grilled's own defence that would be their own worst enemy yet again, and after just five minutes, Prabhu foolishly let a seemingly overhit pass roll beyond him, only to stare as former national youth player Kum Nie Tong barreled through, splitting the spread-out Birds central defence. Jack-of-all-trades Kum did nearly run it out, but recovered to clip it just outside of Wong Tian Han
's reach in the end.
Caron's class shone through from the start, and few could fault Ang for not quite managing to get a handle on the astoundingly active Number Eleven. Just the very next minute, Caron was extremely unlucky to put the ball onto the crossbar after turning on a dime following Jindřich Ženíšek's visionary sidefooted pass.
The other, darker side of Caron's physicality then came to the fore after 18 minutes. Gene Filippone
had eaten a couple of biting tackles from Othmane Majdawi already, but he wouldn't be able to get up after taking an unintentional elbow from Caron. Clément Meyer
confronted the latter angrily as blood streamed from Filippone's cheek, which required Ling Fuquan
to make a hasty entrance.
Ling's arrival didn't improve Grilled's defence near enough, and Shining Lights continued to call the shots as they had. Wong Tian Han
had his hands full, and although he provided a stunning one-handed save when Majdawi threatened an inch-perfect lob, he couldn't do much when Ženíšek sped by first Woon Shun An
, and then himself, before depositing Lights' second goal in the 28th minute.
The Birds' first true chance then came on the stroke of the half-hour, by none other than Tian Yonghang
. The Grilled skipper looked to have made sure of it when he delicately brought down Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
's dinked pass, and then stepped expertly inside of Kum, but Spanish veteran goalie Felipe Velarde made himself very big.
Lights captain Kum Nie Tong came out of half-time all pumped up, and was in the penalty area when a direct cross from Aroldo Burgos was dropped right into its heart. Wong Tian Han
would later protest that he had been blocked off by Majdawi, but referee Asante Ludigo-Mkasa wasn't sympathetic, and Kum could claim his second of the day off a glancing header.
It could only get worse for the now-disheartened visitors, and the Grilled backline was all at sea when Burgos advanced again in the 53rd minute. Clark Won
had by now tired of tracking his runs, and Ling Fuquan
's late lunge only gave Majdawi all the time he needed to line up his strike, which he duly put between the goalkeeper's legs.
This wasn't what the Birds wanted to take into their clash against BCFC, but they would at least claim a consolation to soften the blow. Again, Tian Yonghang
was the creator, as he danced past Iranian fullback Faraz Balouch with a sprightliness that would shame players ten years his junior. Velarde got a fist to the finish, but Rinor Isufi
was lurking this time, and the rapacious Albanian predator pounced to make it 4-1.
Lights would respond immediately with a tap-in from Lim Boon Guang, and despite Low Aik Jia
's introduction and bursts of speed down the left, Grilled would not be able to muster any further shots on target. Bacelar figured that he might as well let former star striker Domenik Bögengang
stretch his leg towards the end, which about summed up the game for the Birds.