A sorry Grilled Birds team appeared dead and buried after sixteen short minutes at the newbies ground, but it would somehow be them who walked out with all the points. For that, they had former Albanian youth international striker Rinor Isufi
to thank, as he single-handedly put the hosts the the sword, first with a critical response to halt the rot, and then with a magnificent hat-trick in eight second-half minutes to seal the deal.
It was the 18th competitive derby between the Jurong mainstays, with their latest meeting ending 4-5 in Grilled's favour, despite Giulio Bollini's hat-trick. The Italian would again lead the line as newbies' coach stated their intention to put an end to their three-match losing streak in the league, having concentrated their resources on the Singapore Cup - in which they had just tumbled out to Joker 9.
Grilled themselves hadn't won in two, and were moreover without Ang Leong Kum
, who had often been their most energetic runner this season. Clark Won
was promoted into central midfield after some promising sessions in training, while Zhao Jing Wei
was shoehorned into the left wing role, which left Low Aik Jia
once more stony-faced on the bench.
This was largely a disaster. Static and unimaginative, the Birds players were soon reduced to a reactive posture, with Zhao looking a fraction the player that he was in his pomp, and the midfield dragged over to his flank to compensate. They were completely out of shape when Zhang Ruotian zipped through in the seventh minute, and Belgian forward Joel Haverhals met cross with foot sweetly to make it one-nil.
newbies captain Zhang was just getting going, and Grilled had nobody willing or able to stop him at this point. Wong Ping Shun
did his best, but it was an awful matchup when Zhang had space to move, and Zhang had his choice of targets to pick out two minutes later. Wong Tian Han
's best bet was to cover Grzegorz Pisarski at his near post, which he did, but Giulio Bollini then recovered to smash home his sixth all-time goal against the Birds.
It seemed all over for Grilled when Yue Haoping struck a world-class free-kick that just eluded Wong Tian Han
in the 16th minute, and it appeared that the only question would be whether the Birds would be humiliated, just as they had been multiple times the previous season. The following minutes did little to dispel that notion, with Wong having to dig deep into his bag of goalkeeping tricks, and Ling Fuquan
's pulled hamstring seemed a cruel joke played on a sinking side.
Instead, it turned out to be Grilled's salvation.
Rashid bin Ahmad
might have often been overlooked at the back, due to his relative weakness at distribution, but this was exactly the sort of situation in which he could shine. Rashid would soon make Grilled's defence much more stable that it had been, but before that, Rinor Isufi
would restore some self-belief with an assured header off Tian Yonghang
's flip from the left.
That proved just the tonic for the Birds, as newbies were caught up on whether to continue attacking or just protect their lead, and Tian made the decision for them in the 35th minute. After the game had been stopped for Matías Soto's crunching tackle on Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
, Clément Meyer
sneakily took the free-kick when the newbies players were expecting a full set-up, and Tian Yonghang
was on the same wavelength.
Now, newbies remained the favourites, and reaffirmed that status right after the restart. Though Grilled had managed to get Zhang off their backs for awhile, the winger was still more than a match for any single opponent, and even Rashid lost him then. It would prove a grevious mistake, leading to Bulgarian wingback Mihail Latev picking the ball off Gene Filippone
, and newbies' win appeared secure at 4-2 and with a coherent gameplan.
With Peter Haley in fine form, and Mohd Safri off his best, maintaining this margin was certainly within the home team's reach. They hadn't counted on probably the least-heralded of Grilled's attacking trio finding his feet, though, and Rinor Isufi
would wound them severely for it.
The comeback came to life in the 71st, after a long stretch of generally negative play - Wong Ping Shun
did his thing on the right, then did the unexpected by darting inside, before releasing Isufi. Isufi worked that into a delightful fake-out that literally twisted Raja Sahu's ankle, before elegantly chipping Javier Caamaño, a sequence that had the travelling fans salivating.
With Sahu stricken, and their lead cut to one, newbies legend Roshadi bin Che Rusli was not taking chances, and sent the dependable Hector Wong into the fray. Unfortunately, Wong hadn't had any time to get in tune, and Isufi for sure wasn't about to wait. Wong Ping Shun
for his part was beginning to dominate Mihail Latev in the same way as Zhang Ruotian had throughout, and soon delivered up an inch-perfect low cross that Isufi shimmied in, for his hat-trick.
The home fans fell ominously silent at this, as Zhang attempted to rally his troops, but it was Isufi who had captured the moment. Four minutes later, he would embark on a fearless solo invasion, and though Hector Wong inserted himself in a valiant block, Isufi had seen that coming, and dragged the ball back before blasting it into the roof of the net.
Grilled had not celebrated a goal like this for a very long time, but perhaps more notable was the manner in which Isufi carried himself through it - as if, for want of better words, that he knew
he could do it.
Of course, it was not quite over yet, and Zhao Jing Wei
made a late but important contribution with a vital challenge on Bollini. That got him booked, but it also bought Grilled enough time to regroup, and Wong Tian Han
saved Yue's free-kick to sullen faces from behind his goal.