Faced with the opportunity to climb back to Division Two, the Birds grabbed it with both hands, as loyalists Cyril Künzler
and Islom Davlatov
reenacted the understanding that had served them so well in the past. Newcomer Bilal Mohammad Harun
then provided the difference, to see Grilled past a fang-baring Tigers.
It had only been two seasons since The Sing Tigers sent Grilled crashing out of the Sapphire Challenge Cup, but as an indication of their degree of turnover, all four of their scorers on that day are no longer at the club. So complete was their transformation that English goalkeeper Kenneth Werribee was the only holdover from that match, but it is also hard to argue that Hungarian gaffer Lajos Muszka hadn't tremendously improved the side.
Much the opposite held for Grilled, who had only four changes from that day - Massoud Dob
, Gilbert Webb
, Bilal and Vikram Mudaliar
. Chu Xin Lee
would be an unconventional pick at left wing over Florus Romijn
, and it was theorized by the commentators that it was a conscious decision by Hovaness Noubaryan
to constrain play, being the underdogs.
That discussion was still well underway, when Cyril Künzler
lit up on the right; having been let go by Lars-Inge Gottby, the Pole took Mario Bonini right on, with the rest of the Tigers apparently disbelieving that anyone could try such an obvious tack. From how Bonini tottered in his way, however, Künzler's blitz was no joke at all, and Islom Davlatov
offered himself as target for a cross - which Künzler obliged.
The home support at The sixth road went quiet as the scoreboard reflected Davlatov's goal, as Muszka let loose on his bewildered charges. Now well and fully into the game, the Tigers schemed for an equaliser, which came when former Czech youth international Svatopluk Panáček read Künzler's mind in the 12th minute. Coming away with the ball, he utilized Mirosław Sznejder well to lure Dob aside, opening up the net for himself.
The Sing Tigers were looking every inch the favourites when they had the ball, but Grilled lived dangerously and survived. The Birds were most dangerous on the short counter, as amply illustrated by Vikram Mudaliar
's skinning Bruno Varta for pace, after a smart interception. Werribee had earlier saved one from Mudaliar, but he would not have a second opportunity as the Number Nine unselfishly squared for Davlatov instead.
Nervousness returned to the hosts, and their decision to go for a high press failed them once more soon enough. Moey Xin Seng
couldn't help but salivate at all that space, and Künzler was happy enough to give chase, as Bonini raised his hand for offside in vain. It was down to Werribee yet again, and though he blocked the winger's first attempt, it fell right back into his path for a chipped third goal.
The Tigers would be back level by the break, however, more as a testament to their raw attacking power, than any complacency on the part of Grilled. Belgian Matthias Van Vlierden showed that he was on board with the speed game too, as he mercilessly ran Chu Xin Lee
ragged in the 41st minute, before timing his pass on to Hakan Gillard excellently. They then made it 3-3, as Mirosław Sznejder dribbled his way with wonderful poise, between several Grilled men.
This meant that the second half started as if nothing had happened, which on hindsight seemed exceedingly unfair, given the players' efforts. Rightly or wrongly, that was the fact of the matter, and the Birds looked like they might rue not going defensive when they had the opportunity to. Gillard was a constant menace in the heart of their backline, and only Yuta Nakakita
's potent reading of the game kept the Tigers from feasting.
With the game not developing their way, the onus was on Noubaryan to shake it up tactically. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his choice was the attacking substitution of Florus Romijn
for Chu on the left, seeing as extra time was unlikely to benefit his team. Very unfortunately, Romijn had barely had time to stretch his legs when the Tigers went ahead for the first time, as Jamaican midfielder Sheldon Nicholson smashed a banger that left Dob no chance.
This was the moment that The Sing Tigers had been painstakingly working towards, and unlike Grilled, they were prepared to be utterly professional in shutting the game down. Sznejder for one was not at all ashamed at taking Neeraj Muthyala
down after having carelessly lost the ball, and he was well-supported by the home fans in that.
Grilled were running out of time, but they caught a break when the Tigers neglected to close Bilal Mohammad Harun
down, with about ten minutes to go. Granted, Bilal might have been on something of a dry streak after having scored in three of his first four starts, but teams would forget his deadliness from range at their peril. Striking with almost no windup, he had Werribee rooted, as the ball flew in at the post.
That goal changed everything, as both coaches sprung into action. Noubaryan went all in, pulling Mudaliar off for Chan Ze Han
, while Muszka huddled with his captain, Dietmar Allig. Coincidence or not, the Tigers' very next attack went through Allig on the left, but Massoud Dob
would all but pluck the incoming cross away from Nicholson's forehead.
The stakes were rising, and there was a wariness about the game that the spectators definitely felt. Chan Ze Han
quite obviously played for a free-kick against Panáček as Grilled hesitated to commit men in support, and there was outrage when referee Kleanthis Tsatsaronakis awarded it... though perhaps not nearly as much outrage, as when Cyril Künzler
bent it in over the wall.
As the Tigers squad exploded in protest, Noubaryan knew what he had to do, and used his third and last substitution to bring Hoàng Trung Quá
on, with an explicit mission to slow the game as much as he could. The Tigers were roused, though, and the stadium was on its feet when Gillard went to ground on a nudge by Yuta Nakakita
, with the clock running out.
There was no way to tell if Tsatsaronakis had been influenced by the crowd, or his previous decision, but The Sing Tigers now had a free-kick of their own, in all but the optimal position, straight in front of goal. Sznejder ran up and executed a textbook delivery, but Massoud Dob
was there with a big fist, to punch it all the way to touch.
The match had to be delayed as Kalki Parvathaneni
played up the hand he got in the face from Marcos Abrodos, but who could blame him? The Sing Tigers were left with one last opportunity from the throw, with even Werribee coming up for it, but Neeraj Muthyala
leapt highest to clear the danger - and condemn the Tigers to the drop.