There would be no victory for either Controlar or Grilled Birds today, but the fiercely-contested draw was greeted more with relief than disappointment, given the rough patches that both were going through.
With the twain firmly ensconced at the foot of the table, there wasn't much ground that could be given without engendering a wholesale crisis of confidence, and both sets of head coaches, Mihai Oanea and Djan Bacelar
, were noticeably cagey when confronting their futures in their pre-match interviews. Their struggling sides had managed to best only a fading Batok Earthquakes in the league thus far, and perhaps most worryingly of all, there wasn't much either could identify to improve matters.
Tellingly, Oanea would again abandon his preferred 4-5-1 today, instead trusting in the 3-5-2 that had brought him that win over Earthquakes; Franco Mazzoli would again partner first-choice striker Derya Kozak, with utility man Abhishek Mashelkar vacating his usual fullback position to sit on the bench.
Mashelkar wouldn't have to wait for long to get in on the action, as it happened. Homegrown former youth international Caleb Tam, who had been among Controlar's fastest-improving box-to-box players, saw his day cut short after crashing full into Neeraj Muthyala
in the tenth minute. This saw him suffer a deep gash on his lower leg, and Oanea made the call for Mashelkar to get on, after several minutes' treatment didn't have the desired effect.
Then again, this might have been something of a blessing in disguise, as the oft-underrated Mashelkar lent a new air of unpredictability to the previously-restrained Controlar midfield. While perhaps not the most technical or organized option around, the 27 year-old made some interesting passing choices, and his rich defensive experience tended to rescue him from those that didn't come off.
Although Grilled probably just about edged it overall, Controlar would claim the first real chance of note in the 28th minute. Once again, it was a questionable-looking ball from Mashelkar that started it, that wound up setting Cleiton Souza free, after Yuki Irie
had been nudged off the clearing header. Mashelkar nearly finished up the return, but his instinctive lob on-the-go whizzed narrowly wide.
The Birds were not to be left behind, and they continued trying to wear down Controlar with a relatively slow and measured advance. This didn't go down overly well with Low Aik Jia
on the right, but it did result in a dinky through pass for Rinor Isufi
, from Yuta Nakakita
in the 37th minute. Having just scored in the Ravens Trophy tournament, Isufi bore down on Henri-Edouard Leplae with purpose, but the encroaching Gottlieb Raymer would eventually force his shot askew.
That half left very little for anyone in the stadium to be pleased about, and it was evident that the players were, on the main, playing more not to lose
than to win. It would take probably the most fed-up guy on the pitch to change that, as with Low Aik Jia
racing clear starting in his own half, with reckless disregard for tactical discipline. This was just what was needed to create a fracture in Controlar's backline, however, and Tian Yonghang
supplied the finishing touch, with a cool double sidestep to evade Tadeusz Steinke's attempted tackle.
The goal was greeted with arguably outsized enthusiasm from the Grilled players, who took some time to recognize Bacelar's frantic signalling from the sidelines. Getting the hint, Hariharan Prabhu
led the midfield in some composed ball-hogging. Wanting to make sure, Bacelar then put Hoàng Trung Quá
on as a chaser, with Yuta Nakakita
acting as an ad-hoc defender when required.
It was going pretty well for the Birds at this point, and they could conceivably have put it to bed with some luck. Low, who had become increasingly adventurous against a dazzled Cristian Manuel Irazazábal, had a pop that sailed marginally over in the 66th. A bit later, Gennady Dvorak
appeared to have nailed it with a behind-the-back lob from nowhere, but Leplae to his credit was watching for something like that.
Still, it was going well enough for Bacelar to withdraw his captain with fifteen minutes remaining, though to be honest, Tian Yonghang
was about spent by then. The 36 year-old had given it his all, as always, despite still recovering from a pulled hamstring midweek, and the small away contingent recognized his contributions with much ado.
His replacement Mohammad Ramli Saliman
did give some indications of eventually being a passable successor, exhibiting some of the clever footwork and control that had marked Tian out. However, there was no comparing the gap in influence between the two, as subconsciously evidenced by Grilled's build-up shifting to emphasize Low and Isufi instead.
It would still be hard on Saliman if Controlar's equalizer were to be blamed on him, all said; while he probably could have held Raymer up slightly longer than he had, Sébastien Guennec's slick stepover to lose Ang Leong Kum
was probably the critical factor in its success. Sensing their moment had finally come, the Controlar midfield broke in numbers, and Slovakian Tomáš Kýr would rifle it home through a crowded penalty area.
That goal seemed to take all the spirit out of both teams, as they reverted to loss-minimization mode out of habit. The final ten minutes would see plenty of fanning about and eyeing each other, but precious little forward movement. It was almost as if the weary players had agreed that a draw, while not ideal, was reluctantly palatable, and that was indeed how it ended.