No Fight Left
It is increasingly looking like the curtain call for Tian Yonghang
's generation, with his opener at The Cooking Pot only presaging a bloody rampage from United Warrior Team. A strong start petered out soon after Lee Lee Hao
went off with a twisted ankle, and the Warriors exhibited the attacking quality that has seen them settle firmly in third spot to deal the Birds a fourth league defeat in succession.
Though the fixture had relatively little meaning despite being in the penultimate round, the home fans that remained were more riled up than usual, not having forgotten the unprecedented 0-8 mauling that they had been dealt by the visitors a bare few months back. This fact was gleefully driven in by the Warriors' fans, who had banners specially made for the occasion.
Other than that, relations between the clubs have been quite cordial, with the players displaying next to no animosity, perhaps disappointing those in the stands. Bacelar continued with his experimentation, pushing Rinor Isufi
back into attack, while Ang Leong Kum
was the week's rotation into midfield.
Jordan McCleary, currently in a dead heat with BCFC's Zuberbühler for the Golden Boot, did not receive the warmest of welcomes from the home crowd, no thanks to his record haul that fateful day; with national winger Xie Chi Huat rested, and Jáchym Vedral still recovering from his severe concussion suffered last weekend, Czech playmaker Libor Rychtář took over command, and acquitted himself magnificently.
Not for a while, however, as Grilled made the kind of explosive start that has been so rarely seen in recent seasons. If Warriors were expecting slow, cautious probing, they were badly mistaken, and had to scramble to avoid the worst of the Birds' frenzied movement. Claudio Boschetto's quick thinking prevented Rinor Isufi
from an open pop in the third minute, and Isufi had to lay it fifteen yards back, for Lee Lee Hao
to have a crack at it. Marcel Liefke was visibly relieved to watch it sail inches wide.
The activity brought a great response from the jaded home fans, and the mood was infectious with the players upping the heat further. Isufi was eager to make his mark, and his guileless running gave the Warriors' defenders a whole new set of problems. His dragback in the 14th minute came so unexpectedly that nobody even tried to cut the pass to Tian Yonghang
out, but Tian delayed a fraction too long, and was wiped out by Liefke's follow-through, as the big German goalie slid in with his body.
This had Tian writhing in the six-yard box as the supporters screamed for a penalty, which referee Adam DeVane seemed on the verge of granting. He called for a conference with his assistants at the last moment, however, and after several long minutes with Tian being given treatment, decided to award a free-kick to the Warriors instead. Needless to say, he was not the most popular man in the stadium.
Replays did appear to vindicate DeVane, though it was very close, and the Birds returned to the business of trying to get ahead. They did maintain their vigor, and kept pounding away with the visitors penned back in their own half. Bad fortune struck out of the blue eventually, with Lee Lee Hao
's standing ankle buckling awkwardly as he delivered a crossfield ball in the 30th minute.
This had to come as Lee had been repressing opposite number Alessandro Rapacchi, and while Low Aik Jia
did provide a directness second to none upon making his appearance, he soon revealed just why the coaches had been reluctant to depend on him on the left. Before that, however, Tian put Grilled into the lead with a cleanly-struck grounder, which was about what the Birds deserved from a dominant half-hour.
Gaining the lead turned a switch off in the Grilled players' heads, however, and United Warrior Team almost instantly began to arrive first for those fifty-fifty balls. Rychtář, who had prevented his side from being completely overrun, had to concede a yellow card for a calculated tugback on Ang, but this was quickly followed by a mistake from the victim that let Robert Malik in to equalize.
It was at least fortunate that half-time came when it did, with passions beginning to overflow. Stadium marshals were seen pacifying fans, who had been becoming increasingly restless as taunts were exchanged across the barriers, and this boiled over to Rinor Isufi
's deliberate kicking away of the ball as Liefke lined up a goal-kick. DeVane had no choice but to book him, and was quite unfairly pilloried for it by the partisan mob.
On the positive side, the match remained entertainingly open, with Grilled retaining a slight edge into the second half. Warriors led a charmed life, though, and while the Birds managed numerous forays through the middle, either a defender managed to ward off the final pass, or Liefke made the required save.
This went on until the Warriors grabbed the lead in classic fashion - off a corner. McCleary had been having a quiet afternoon, but he remained good enough to bang it off Ling Fuquan
's shins when needed. Carlos Rufach swung the corner long, and tall Ukrainian midfielder Alexey Spiridonov made all of the Birds' prior efforts for naught, with his towering header aimed between Wong Tian Han
and Zhu Changchun
at the near post.
If this was frustrating for the home fans, yet worse was to come. It was difficult to be certain whether the visitors should have gotten a free-kick after Ignacio Maldonado tumbled after a tame-looking touch from Wong Ping Shun
, but DeVane granted it. It was not in the best of positions, but Italian Dino Blasi found the advancing Malik with his blind backwards header, and the rest was history.
This was tough to swallow for the Grilled supporters, who had seen their side control most of the proceedings only to be beaten by two set pieces. Salvation appeared to be at hand when old favourite Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
faked Claudio Boschetto out with a clever half-step that was breathtaking in its simplicity, but once again backup in the form of Ján Reviľák arrived before he could profit.
Adam DeVane then confirmed himself as chief villian of the day, after the Warriors' ensuing breakaway ended in Jordan McCleary taking a tumble as Gene Fillipone ran alongside. Replays were again mostly inconclusive, but when considered in conjunction with Grilled's rejected appeal early on, the fans were definitely not prepared to be generous.
The Birds crowded DeVane in vain as Rufach lined up the penalty, and although Wong Tian Han
guessed the right direction, the kick was too accurate to stop. Djan Bacelar
himself had accosted one of the linesmen in the meantime, and made his displeasure unambigiously known.
This changed nothing about the actual ground situation, of course, and the Warriors were only too pleased to sit on their fat lead. McCleary and Isufi instigated late raids that ended unmemorably, and the cameras would focus on Bacelar standing forlornly alone on the sidelines, through the pointless five minutes of injury time.