4 - 3 Grilled Birds
They might not have made it, but in truth Grilled had little to be dissatisfied about in their nail-biting 3-4 qualifier loss at Hehe Arena, as they stretched their S-League adversaries in a cracker of a match. Fatigue would eventually creep into the Birds' magnificent pressuring game in the second half, but despite their eventual capitulation, few of their fans in attendance could have been let down by the spirit they showed.
On the face of it, the Birds were rank underdogs, and nowhere was it exemplified more by having just one recognized forward in their lineup. The dropping of Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
was perhaps to be expected after a spate of less-than-encouraging performances, but Rinor Isufi
failing to make the cut suggested deeper troubles in Grilled's striking setup. As it was, 34 year-old Tian Yonghang
was left to carry the goal burden on his own... or so it was thought.
Haha, on the other hand, could be described as a team still on the rise, with their midfield core of Peh Ting Da and Kok Tse Boon both yet to hit their prime. Chinese import Wen Youguo tied the combination together with some additional height in the department, while Belgian striker Korneel Yzerbyt had been a creative force through the season, if not exactly prolific yet.
It was quite understandable that Grilled's scoring potential did not inspire confidence when the personnel lists were revealed, even though they were buoyed by Wong Ping Shun
's passing of his last-minute medical. The home support was justifiably confident, but it took only a few minutes of near-rabid hounding by the visitors, for it to sink in that it was going to be a very long day.
A lack of energy had been a constant criticism of this Grilled side, all the more with most of the team on the wrong side of thirty; it was tough to believe, then, that they were dashing about like excited high schoolers. Haha had evidently mentally prepared for a siege, and fumbled for a response to a Birds team seemingly transported ten seasons back in time. Width came back into play, and just twelve minutes had gone by when Wong nudged a pass across for an ebullient Low Aik Jia
to bang in.
This was not what the Haha fans had arrived for, and they could hardly believe their eyes when it all fell apart straight from the restart. Low threw caution to the wind with a full-on sprint down the left that Romanian wingback Dan Caţă, no slouch himself, could not hope to catch, and this utterly straightforward ploy was completed with a cookie-cutter low cross. With numbers about even in the six-yard box, Lee Lee Hao
came up with the ball, and flipped it past former Slovakian U-20 goalie Juraj Kočera with some panache.
A stony silence settled over Hehe Arena as the Birds celebrated, though it was cut short by Djan Bacelar
's tactical substitution of Yuki Irie
for Low. The left winger was definitely not happy about that, especially given how he had just torn the Haha backline asunder, but he made it back to the dugout in the end. Bacelar appeared justified in short order when Irie put in a partial block on Peh Ting Da's lob, that carried it safely over Wong Tian Han
It was simply all going Grilled's way at this juncture. Complicated pass combinations were coming off like clockwork, and hesitation was nowhere to be found among their members. Haha were caught on the backfoot, but could only be described as unlucky in the 19th minute, when Ang Leong Kum
's questionable through pass was deflected infield by Philip Sing's well-meaning sliding block. Lee was, once more, in the right position to take advantage, and he brought the travelling Grilled fans to rapture with a stunning volley on the turn.
Haha's first season in the S-League was looking more and more like it was going to end in relegation, but they could at least take heart from Grilled's suffocating closing-down game beginning to show signs of distress. As a gambit, it had succeeded beyond the Birds' wildest dreams, but just quite how long it could last, remained the big question. Tian Yonghang
for one had more or less been in constant motion for the full twenty minutes, and the strain was clearly beginning to show.
A cushy three-goal advantage was a natural point to switch tacks, and Bacelar did evidently call for Grilled to fall back on a possession-based strategy. Of course, everybody knew just what they were aiming at, not least the worked-up hosts, who looked almost relieved to be the ones doing the attacking now.
Peh, who had taken up an advanced role, was Haha's best hope to claw themselves back out of the hole, and the former Villains F.C. star lived up to his billing with his mix of skills that made him a right handful for Gene Filippone
; Haha were slowly regaining their accustomed levels, and Portuguese winger Zeferino Vieira Antunes's 29th minute reducer was a typical Haha strike, achieved after drawing the defenders tight.
It was also far from enough, however, and when Grilled reached half-time unscathed further, Haha's Czech gaffer Rudolf Žemla was visibly drained. Indeed, the Birds had also used the change in pace to recover most of their strength, and were already starting to take it up a notch again, with Lee Lee Hao
coming close to forcing a fatal turnover, had Kok Tse Boon not had the presence of mind to get his trailing leg in the way.
With a likely fourth goal transformed into a booking by Kok's quick thinking, the match finally turned for real, as Haha found their true potential. Instead of getting caught in a reactive loop, they began to call the game on their terms, with Peh and Wen undoubtedly the main influences.
Grilled themselves were not nearly done, but their greed led to their undoing; a drawn-out assault committed far too many yellow-shirted bodies than was prudent, and Haha were confronted with a golden counter-attacking opportunity in the 59th minute when Tian stumbled and lost the ball. Kok dodged a few tackles smartly as he waited for the killer pass to present itself, as it did when Peh loomed into view from behind Ling Fuquan
. It was close, but Peh sprung the offside trap successfully, and went on to draw Wong Tian Han
the wrong way before making it 3-2.
With a Haha comeback on the cards, Bacelar's response was to replace Zhao with Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
, following Grilled's reigning philosophy - that the best defence was a good attack. Unfortunately, the logic of that move was quickly called into question, as Zhao's stable if quiet grasp on the match was replaced by the sad sight of Mohd Safri huffing away ineffectively; the 25 year-old vintage could conceivably have bullied the likes of Philip Sing into submission, but with him turning thirty-six, the tables were turned.
Bacelar might have regretted his decision almost immediately, but the die was cast, and it was all he could do to wait. As it was, Grilled teetered on the verge between collapsing at the back, and pulling out a fourth to break Haha's momentum, and twelve agonizing minutes passed for both sets of fans before this was resolved in Haha's way. Peh had been superb throughout, and made no mistake with his header from the searching cross of Hernâni Luís Figueiredo, formerly of Swedish cupwinners Frölunda killers.
The Birds were technically level, but it was clear to all that they were the ones losing it; the delayed effects of their first-half exertions were kicking in, and they were having a big problem keeping up with the far-fresher Haha players.
The end came six minutes from time, as the exhausted Grilled side allowed a revitalized Figueiredo to have his way down the right again. This time, however, he elected for a short pass to supporting fullback Tang Kum Guang, and the Haha captain laid the Birds to rest with a cheeky skip past Clark Won
, before drilling a faultless drive in at Wong's bottom corner.