Paladins March On
Ang Leads Charge
Parkway Paladins stopped the Birds in the Round of 32 today, reversing the 0-4 loss they suffered five seasons ago, in Grilled's Ruby Challenger Cup-winning campaign. Captain Ang Hock Qiang, the lone holdover starter from that game, was the one who put the Paladins back on track after the Birds failed to make much of their strong start, and they would seal the deal with sharp counterattacking.
For all the significance of the fixture, both sides declined to showcase their full might, with Paladins midfield prodigy Mak Teck Jian - already capped twice for the national side despite being only 24 - sitting this out completely. Grilled for their part swapped almost all their mids out, leaving only Wong Ping Shun
on the right. They did shift the still-inexperienced Moey Xin Seng
wide left while giving Yuki Irie
a chance at reliving his weekend heroics as the core man, while handing the armband back to Tian Yonghang
And, it did go about as well as could be expected for the Birds, to begin with. Aleix Rabinat tried to push the pace but was effectively countered by Yuki, who picked up where he left off, delivering telling passes with consistency. The Paladins knew their defending, however, and it took 24 minutes before Grilled tested Chilean goalie Hugo Araujo, with who else but Yuki Irie
crafting the opening.
While Araujo did his duty in getting to it in time, he would soon bemoan not keeping it in play, as Neeraj Muthyala
fought his way inside a pack of players to convert the corner. Grilled looked set to run out winners at this stage, as they continued attacking unabated; Tian Yonghang
for one was strutting his stuff, and appeared to have put the Birds two up after half an hour - only for Araujo to tip his lob onto the crossbar.
This turned out to be exactly the break that the Paladins needed, and it all began with Tomasz Ceranka getting to the rebound ahead of Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
, and clear it down the middle. French point man Samuel Nestor did an admirable job of holding it up while waiting for the calvary to arrive, and Ákos Jaksa wisely let it run through to Ang Hock Qiang for a tidy finish.
Grilled shook it off and picked up where they left off, only to be hit by another blitz two minutes later, after Moey tried to turn in tight conditions rather than let it run out, and had his pocket picked by former Taiwanese international Chen Jiming. Moey did do his best to chase back, but Chen played it on to Nie Tze Chao before Moey could close, and Nie clipped it off the bottom of Clément Meyer
's raised leg to score.
That made a painful one-two blow for the Birds to stomach, and it was all they could do to continue plugging away. Unfortunately, despite actually creating quite a bit, the killer instinct eluded them. Lee Lee Hao
tried to go around Araujo despite having plenty of goal to aim at in the 42nd, and Meyer would eat a yellow card after knocking Lars Stridskog over in his hurry to put it over - the goal was, of course, disallowed.
Grilled weren't willing to wait to resume their search in the second half, and Low Aik Jia
was spotted conversing animatedly with Luis Alcántara on the sidelines, likely over being allowed to get in on the action. The coaching staff evidently disagreed, however, and Moey retook his position on the left. Strangely, Antonio Forni swapped positions with Liav Atias for Parkway Paladins, but they were none the weaker for it.
For all of the Birds' industry, it would be a repeat story, as they proved vulnerable to speed when committed; once again, Araujo would be the key man for the Paladins, as he palmed Wong Ping Shun
's wicked curler around the post. This time, the corner kick was cleared right into Grilled's half, and an unlucky stumble by Yuki Irie
allowed Lars Stridskog a clear run inside, to make it 3-1.
Despite that, Grilled hung on to their hopes, but it simply wasn't about to be their day. Araujo looked increasingly unbeatable as he demonstrated unbelievable nimbleness to change direction and bat Neeraj Muthyala
's strike at his far post aside, and ten minutes later smothered the ball at Clark Won
's feet, before he could shoot. The Paladins fans were hugely appreciative, while Djan Bacelar
could only shake his head in resignation from the sidelines.
Wong Tian Han
did keep Grilled just about in it with his superb 70th minute save off Samuel Nestor's snap-shot, but Chen Jiming would scupper what faint hopes remained with his 78th minute blast. Rinor Isufi
got to come on for Meyer with five minutes remaining, but the Birds' blind high balls were next to completely ineffective by this point.