Dob vs. Dub
The Birds returned to Division Two with a bang, defeating historic Clementi side richlyeng rangers 3-1 at their SHARKS ARENA, in the first game between the clubs. The Rangers had certaining taken their time to rise up the ranks, having made it to this level after some forty-one long seasons, a timeworn dream achieved by their new French head coach Azzouz Baji after just one full campaign in charge.
A goalkeeper by trade, Baji had pinned the Rangers' fate on their defensive foundations, and he would not be disappointed. A three-man backline might not appear to point towards such a philosophy, but starters Irinel Duţu, John McNamara and Dávid Puska broke with the modern mould by almost never venturing out of their own half. German defensive midfielder Lars Duenhuber had moreover evolved into more of an advanced sweeper than anything, and they now further had S$13.5 million-rated goalkeeper Krystian Dub manning the gates.
Another Pole - Józef Siciak - represented most of their quality in attack, and Baji for one didn't hide the Rangers' mission: to frustrate as much as they would, and score if they could. Against this was arrayed Grilled's considerable offensive firepower, with Chu Xin Lee
serving as the foil for Kalki Parvathaneni
and Vikram Mudaliar
to run off.
The hosts must have been satisfied by the first half an hour, which was characterized by the players being unwilling to make any mistakes. And who could blame them, given the enormity of the occasion, for Grilled as much as richlyeng? Many of the younger Birds had hardly been regulars when they were in II.1, and were moreover in a declining team unavoidably suffused with a dreadful sense of inadequacy; today, then, was an opportunity at a fresh start, a rebirth.
Last season's top scorer Kalki for one had racked up just five appearances in Division Two at 24 years of age, and it was evident that he saw it as underselling his capabilities. He could well be right, from how he tore past the nearest man time and again, only Rangers' multi-layered defence generally managed to halt him before too long. Still, Kalki might well have opened in the 15th minute from Moey Xin Seng
's delicate flick header on, but Dub helped the lob just over the crossbar, to a roar of approval from the stands.
There was less invention than Hovaness Noubaryan
would have liked, as he periodically made to gesture his players to move the ball up. After a frankly snore-inducing stretch, 19 year-old Brazilian forward Camilo Sampaio brought a long pass down with his right foot in the 37th minute, only to be instantly hustled off it by Gilbert Webb
. The Rangers had finally overstepped, with McNamara unable to return to his post, having been involved in midfield. His first real mistake would be fatal, as Kalki was left with a free run inside, and he finished with a composure befitting his status.
The Rangers' reaction to that was not good at all, as all the pressure that had been building, got to them at once. They were collectively unforgivably slow to react as Vikram Mudaliar
slashed in with intent, and although Dávid Puska stopped that first wave with a preemptive sliding block, Islom Davlatov
would recover smartly and drop it over Krystian Dub, to make it 2-0.
To richlyeng's consolation, their support never let up, and Baji won some time for his men by tying up the match officials with his protests. The second restart was met by a Rangers side determined above all else to make it to the break safely, which they achieved.
Without good options on the bench, the Rangers would have to dig themselves out of their hole without reinforcements, a task for which they were honestly ill-equipped to do. Some of their other opponents would probably have clammed up in this situation and invited richlyeng to initiate attacks. Fortunately for them, Grilled weren't of that sort.
Not that continuing to hammer at the door was necessarily a bad strategy, and it could have paid off handsomely in the 55th minute, as Chu Xin Lee
skirted about the perimeter of their penalty area. On another day, the thunderbolt he arced towards the far post would have gone in, but Dub validated his pricetag here with a monster of a save on the backfoot.
This was exactly what the hosts were watching for, and they returned the ball for Taha Hamdi to gather. Hamdi held on to it for a little too long for the move to considered a counter, but the point was that his team managed the space to get into a promising configuration. Siciak saw the opening, asked for and got the one-two from Sampaio, and came up with the Rangers' first-ever league goal in the second division.
The stadium nearly came down at that, so loud were the fans' cheers, and there was no question that Grilled were more than a little shaken. Now back with self-belief, the hosts upped the frequency of their pushes, and the Birds were teetering. It took some excellent reading of the flow by Yuta Nakakita
to see Grilled through this tricky patch, and Noubaryan had several substitutes warming up, just in case.
Grilled remained the more dangerous where it counted, though, and Kalki could have achieved the spectacular in the 64th minute, beating no less than three men on the go. The prolonged sprint took too much out of him, sadly, and Dub covered the weak finish simply. With their lead still unsafe, Noubaryan would call for a change five minutes later - Moey off, Neeraj Muthyala
Many in the travelling section were scratching their heads at that, since Moey had been one of their better performers, but there was no arguing with Muthyala's shaking it up. He put Chu Xin Lee
through with his first pass, a breathtaking forty-yard homer, but Dub was too agile yet again. That developed into a full-fledged counter, graced by the surreal sight of Dávid Puska bearing down on goal, but Gilbert Webb
came up with a wonderful tackle to trap the ball.
A draw was nevertheless looking more than likely, the way richlyeng were probing, and it would take a third Grilled goal to discourage them for good. It came not from any clever calculation, but from a hurried clearance over all and sundry, with Cyril Künzler
coming back onto the pitch after a minor knock. McNamara actually got to it a fraction early, but Künzler knew just where to supply the body-bump, and he was left with only a few extra strides before sliding it right by Krystian Dub, whose quick reactions worked against him for once.
That was it, but there was also one last substitution to come, as Noubaryan sent Remco van der Ban
on to help chip away at the seconds, in time added on. Remco would finish the match as captain, not having the time to pass the armband on after being handed it by Yuta Nakakita
, who himself had inherited it from Moey. The final moments were further a little confusing as Romelio Morales thought he had scored after the whistle went, not that it would have mattered much.