Drogeanu On Fire
Defending II.2 and Emerald Challenger Cup champions littlehorse extended their unbeaten start to four games, as they left Grilled with very little to work with at The Cooking Pot. Brave words from Hovaness Noubaryan
proved to no avail, with the visitors' implacable veterans holding the fort, while dismantling the Birds' defences readily.
A draw against -= Manchester United =- had hinted that they were not exactly invincible, as had their Wednesday 4-5 loss to Arrogancae in the Singapore Cup in extra-time, but if Grilled were hoping either to carry on from those, or at least that littlehorse might be spent, they were mistaken. This unhappy realisation came as early as the fourth minute, as Yuta Nakakita
and Florus Romijn
misled each other, and in doing so let Guatemalan forward Emiler Valverde head freely. He was too good not to find Vladimiro Musone, who only had to meet the ball.
It was not to say that the Birds were playing poorly, but they were unfortunately against a littlehorse team at full strength. Italian trequartista Tonino Gravagnoli was a particular joy to witness, as he put nary a foot wrong, no matter who Grilled threw at him; even his decision to let the ball go by in the tenth minute was sublime, given that Onuţ Drogeanu was already launching himself for the strike. Surely Gravagnoli had no way to know that, having kept his eyes on the ball, but his faith was repaid with a wondrous effort beyond Massoud Dob
Grilled mustered all the self-control they could, but with their wingers having to stay tucked in to help contain littlehorse, there wasn't much in the way of blitzes to be sprung. What they managed was a purposeful spell of possession about the 17th minute, though Chu Xin Lee
ultimately decided not to force the shot, instead pushing it back for the encroaching midfield ranks. Bilal Mohammad Harun
wasn't shy about having a go, but Lawrence Tempest slid in to shut off the angles. No corner was given either, despite Bilal's insisting that the ballooned strike had nicked off Tempest.
The remainder of the first half would be relatively uneventful, which was probably more to the liking of Grilled, with Gravagnoli being the maestro that he was. Adapting to the reality, the Birds' midfield had Bilal and Moey Xin Seng
almost permanently pressed back, with only Neeraj Muthyala
offering himself in front of them, but of course this made it almost trivial for littlehorse to close him down.
American referee Donald Hatcher threw the Birds the lifeline they had been seeking three minutes into the second half, after Vikram Mudaliar
made the most of contact by Brice Olivier just inside the littlehorse penalty area - he certainly made no attempt to avoid him. It was for naught, sadly, as the usually stone-cold Cyril Künzler
changed his mind mid-runup, and made an awkward flick with the outside of his boot. It might still have beaten Fulvio Speth... had it been five metres to the left.
That downer didn't help Grilled's morale at all, and they never looked likely to unlock a swarming littlehorse side that was going from strength to strength. In theory, the visitors' high line left plenty of space to attack, but in practice any gaps were filled in seconds. Instead, it was littlehorse who continued searching for a third, and Tempest nearly found it with his ferocious drive in the 67th.
Despite the visitors' famously-advanced years, it was Grilled that were looking the older gits, and Drogeanu would get his second goal by blowing past Yuta Nakakita
74 minutes in. One could hardly fault Yuta for appearing as dishevelled as he was, after shouldering the thankless task of being Grilled's final shield against three top strikers, and judging from Hoàng Trung Quá
's expression as he replaced Yuta - who had stayed on the ground after tweaking his right ankle - he wasn't relishing the task either.
Yuta's defensive partner Gilbert Webb
would pay tribute in a way, after Mudaliar's run off to the side had won the Birds a rare corner. With little more to lose, Grilled packed no less than seven men into the box, and it paid off when Webb climbed over all, with perhaps a bit of help from a teammate, to nick the ball on. Kalki Parvathaneni
was waiting at the far post in the hope of just this, and he slammed it into the net over Cheng Changshan's attempted block.
littlehorse struck back almost instantly with Drogeanu for his hat-trick, and at least there was nothing any Grilled player could plausibly have done against a shot of this quality. The Birds somehow kept a draw within the realm of possibility, despite this, as Kalki Parvathaneni
made it 4-2 nearly entirely thanks to his own efforts. A simple shoulder drop saw him gain a step on Brice Olivier, and the French sweeper - so formidable otherwise - was helpless after that.
Sensing a whiff of weakness, Noubaryan sent Chan Ze Han
on for Muthyala, but he would turn out to be mistaken as littlehorse threatened to extend their lead instead. Cheng tried to be too tricky in a great position in the 80th minute, and it would take a goalline stop from Gilbert Webb
to prevent Gravagnoli from getting his due, shortly afterwards.