Cyril In Command
Grilled won in their twenty-seventh competitive meeting with Auld Derby rivals newbies are newbies, which had them overtake Herron as the Birds' most-met opponents ever. Otherwise, it wasn't too much of a change from the recent status quo, which has seen newbies take just one point in the last five of these fixtures, and one win in the last ten.
The newbies ground was up for it despite those unpromising omens, and was packed with nearly eighty thousand souls, in a throwback to the days when both clubs romped in Division Two. A draw earlier in the season at The Cooking Pot boded well for the home support, and newbies head coach Sim Kian Eng would mix it up with a counterattacking 5-3-2, with hero of that match Gan Seng An assigned a central position.
These bold strategic changes did have Grilled puzzled, and their uncharacteristic cautiousness gave newbies license to roam early on. A confused Birds team were still deciding on their approach when newbies broke through in the eighth minute, leading to Rolando Gaztelu smashing it off first the turf, and then the crossbar. This did spark a reflexive counter, on which Florus Romijn
fed Neeraj Muthyala
, who next pulled wide of Seetoh Aik Beng, only to skew the finish.
The game would ossify in a manner after those scares, with Grilled knowing only full well their vulnerability were they to commit fully, and newbies in no hurry to make their move. The tedium was broken by an inadvertent stamp by former Costa Rican youth international Eric Johnson on Yuta Nakakita
, which left the latter unable to flex his left ankle. After a lengthy stoppage, Yuta would leave for Hoàng Trung Quá
This had apparently given Grilled time to formulate some ideas, and they would finally take the lead in the 31st minute, with Cyril Künzler
providing the penetration. The match was setup such that it required one man to beat several honestly for any clear chance to manifest itself, and this was just what the Polish winger did, as he dribbled his way from the right into the middle, and then back out to widen the angle. Seetoh Aik Beng realised the threat a little too late, as Künzler bent the ball in at his far post.
That splendid individual effort brought a response from Eric Johnson, who lashed a shot against Hoàng barely two minutes later. Johnson would come good sooner than later, however, as newbies would again break in numbers following Moey Xin Seng
's abortive push. There were simply too many for the available Grilled players to track properly, and Peh Ting Hao would loft it up for Johnson to swish a header in with style.
newbies were fired up by that, and they abandoned their previous highly-defensive posture as the half approached an end. Neeraj Muthyala
was trying to take the sting out of newbies' attack by shepherding the ball out, only to take a painful boot between his legs, as Johnson tried to reach the ball from behind. Replays would show the entire section of the gallery cringe at the contact.
Johnson couldn't even argue against his yellow as referee Hristo Zahariev showed up, but that was of little consolation to Muthyala's littler johnson, which showed no signs of recovery. Hovaness Noubaryan
hastened to put the stricken playmaker out of his misery, and Muthyala was quickly stretchered off, with Chan Ze Han
Chan might have been panned for a number of less-than-stellar performances before this, but the audience would soon be treated to a reminder of just why he had been so universally played up. Perhaps still more of a natural as a striker, Chan nevertheless brought much with his unique technique to the Birds' engine room, and Yap Chee Tong certainly looked more uncomfortable against him, than he had against Muthyala.
It was however difficult to tell how much that contributed to Grilled's second, but newbies were definitely more jittery than they had been. Martin Tung for one neglected to check before poking the ball back, an act he regretted almost instantly, as Chu Xin Lee
surged off in pursuit from his blind spot. Seetoh Aik Beng had no good options, and elected to stand his ground, but Chu simply aimed it accurately for 2-1.
newbies would have their own injury scare when their much-loved homegrown skipper Kwok Wan Yau clutched his knee after a run-in with Kalki Parvathaneni
, but thankfully for them - and the Young Lions - it turned out to be nothing serious. The same could not be said for newbies' prospects, however, as Grilled began utilizing their possession wisely. Seetoh had to be on his toes against Chu's brilliant 72nd minute attempt, and only just managed to tip it onto the bar.
The Birds would not be kept out indefinitely, and they would decisively extend their lead a while later. newbies had been stubbornly holding out for a good counter, but Florus Romijn
put paid to that, with his frantic charge down the left. Peh Ting Hao would finally bring him down with a doubtful sliding tackle, but Romijn had by then released it square to Cyril Künzler
, who couldn't miss from five yards.
The hosts might yet have made a fight of it, had Yap Chee Tong's strong drive in the 81st minute made it, but Yuki Irie
saw it coming, and helped his goalie out with a prompt block. Iman Eshrafi
knew what he had to do after replacing the mostly-quiet Islom Davlatov
late, and immediately took the ball to the corner flag when he got it.