Champs Come Back
Yuki Career Fear
The Birds did their best, but fell just short of unseating Be Champions FC in their Ruby Challenger Cup quarterfinals. Twice winners, Grilled must have thought that this was indeed their lucky tournament when they went into the lead in the 28th minute, but BCFC then did their thing to prevail with the winning goal, six minutes from time.
Though there have been seven competitive meetings between the sides, and a bunch of unofficial games besides, it has been a full nine seasons since Grilled last faced BCFC. Their widely diverging fates - with Grilled plunging through the ranks, and BCFC plundering glory in the top flight - mostly explained that, and the latter were confident enough to leave international midfielders Redžib Deket and Ganesh Nandamuri on the bench today.
As Grilled skipper Moey Xin Seng
insisted before the game, the Birds were in contrast taking this as their cup final, and they were if nothing eager to avoid another embarrassment on the scale of the Parkway Paladins fiasco. Neeraj Muthyala
was definitely serious about keeping the heat on, and national legend Arnold Pang barely avoided injury when he was brutally clattered by Muthyala after six minutes. Young referee Juan Cuenca took it as an opportunity to set the tone, and went for his cards without hesitation.
Though BCFC had definitely not been invincible in recent months, they did know how to exploit weaknesses, having honed it to a fine art over many arduous S-League campaigns. Yuki Irie
had hardly realised his error when he attempted to shift the ball over to his other side, when it was nicked off his boots by the hovering Adnan Kodra. Support was swiftly forthcoming, and Danish playmaker Falke Hvid would apply the final touch after a couple of sharp passes.
The Birds then had their moments in the sun, as they kept their heads up despite the withering pressure. For one, while perhaps not quite equal to their last great attack that boasted Mohd Safri and Tian Yonghang
yet, there were signs that they had something fast approaching it; Vikram Mudaliar
was certainly no slouch as he gave ex-national defender Mohammad Rafa Khyril Muhymin a run for his money in the 23rd, and although Mohammad Rafa would force him to withold his shot at the critical moment, Mudaliar cleverly transformed it into a sideways layoff that Islom Davlatov
gleefully snapped up.
Grilled then went ahead five minutes later thanks to Neeraj Muthyala
's commanding header from a corner, which was probably the happiest Moey had ever been at being beaten to one. Their supporters were ecstatic and bouncing away in the stands at that, but perhaps ominously, the opposition set didn't look overly bothered at being behind.
They might have recognized how the match was flowing, and indeed, BCFC proved themselves well capable of taking the edge of Grilled's thrusts after that. Moreover, the Birds had to cool off after their hypercharged opening gambit, and BCFC cannily matched the dropoff by upping their own tempo. Never exactly convincing at the holding game, Grilled found themselves back level when Arnold Pang chugged in to slam an equaliser past Massoud Dob
in the 40th minute.
The Birds then suffered another blow, when they lost vice-captain Yuki Irie
to a horrific accident in their drive to regain the lead. Walter Pinilla saved point-blank from Chu Xin Lee
at the other end, but Yuki, who had rushed in anticipating a rebound, ended up crushed awkwardly beneath a pile of bodies after Pinilla fell on him. It was clear to all that his right leg had been twisted unnaturally, and half-time was delayed as the medics worked to minimize the pain.
It might have been cruel to say so, but Yuki's departure was probably not entirely unwarranted in a footballing sense, with Hoàng Trung Quá
perceptibly more mobile, if not particularly dominating in defence. Kodra was still giving him and Yuta Nakakita
the slip at regular intervals, though there fortunately was usually somebody behind them to hold the fort on those occasions.
That didn't bode well for Grilled's own offensive ambitions, it went without saying, and BCFC decisively took the pace for the second half. Mohammad Rafa Khyril Muhymin, who had scored in their last two matches, should perhaps have done so again in the 53rd minute with his wicked free-kick. Massoud Dob
was rooted as the ball dropped like a rock after clearing the defensive wall, but it ended up spinning out off the far post, after taking a bounce.
It was all the Birds could do to keep up, and Bilal Mohammad Harun
for one had his weak points shown up, as he got worked over by the opposing midfielders on the ground. They did exhibit a reassuring strength in the air, though, and the wingers responded by putting it high whenever they could - which wasn't very often.
There were more than a few camera pans to Chan Ze Han
and Kalki Parvathaneni
on the Grilled bench, when it became apparent that they were out of ideas, but Hovaness Noubaryan
gave no indication that he was considering those subs. Instead, Islom Davlatov
would win a sneaky free against the run of play in the 72nd minute, and Cyril Künzler
nearly put Mudaliar clean through with his surprise early take. Pinilla was alert to the possibility, however, and headed it off in the nick of time.
The BCFC fans were beginning to get concerned by now too, though, as Grilled proved unexpectedly resilient in defence. Their salvation seemed due when Adnan Kodra finally unlocked it completely by utilizing a deceptively simple one-two with Rómulo Clemente in the 79th, and Massoud Dob
looked to have blown his chance, as he elected to stay on his line. An incredible spring saw Dob ward Kodra's strike aside, however, for which the goalkeeper was mobbed by appreciative teammates in congratulation.
That great escape couldn't hide the fact that BCFC were the only ones really threatening at this stage, as evinced by Mudaliar having to do double duty as an ad-hoc sweeper - and wound up carded for an unschooled tackle. There were hopes that they could use extra time to regroup, but Kodra extinguished those with a characteristically merciless finish off a slick run.