III.3 challengers Batok Earthquakes kept a lid on Grilled for some fifty minutes of this derby qualifier, only to then concede five goals in a frenetic second half, in which their earlier invulnerability was irrevocably lost. This necessitated the sacrifice of both the Birds' wingers, which allowed form man José Luiz Velho
in to strut his stuff.
Their last meeting, a 3-2 win for Grilled seven seasons back in II.1, had been gone over with a fine tooth-comb by analysts, despite its questionable applicability to today's matchup given squad turnover. Grilled's only holdover from the starting lineup of that day would be Yuta Nakakita
, with Neeraj Muthyala
relegated to the bench. Moey Xin Seng
, an unused teenaged substitute then, would captain the team from midfield; Chu Xin Lee
for his part made way for the young trio of Chan, Mudaliar and Kalki up top.
As for the Earthquakes, they would boast of three defenders from then, namely former youth international Lee Long Chi, sweeper Egil Borch, and Chua Li Sze. Only the last would make it through the day, however, in this bitterly contested fixture.
The visitors could have little to complain about their first half exploits, as it happened. Commentators had placed great importance on the opening goal given the teams' tactical preferences, and it would be the Earthquakes who found it after just five minutes. Florus Romijn
was overly eager to probe down the left, and was entirely missing when Phua Yew Yew doubled up on that flank. An incisive pass saw Earthquakes skipper Ioritz Aldabalde clear on goal, and the Spanish forward buried it.
Accepted wisdom would be for the Earthquakes to dig in after that, but instead, they kept on steaming, and could well have gone three up. An 18th minute free-kick by Aldabalde whistled inches wide of Dob's post, and Lee Long Chi's booking for scything Kalki Parvathaneni
down was soon forgotten in the face of an exciting surge down the left. Cándido Cardozo wheeled in with blistering speed, and large sections of the visiting stands erupted after he powered the ball into the side-netting.
It was difficult to find any saving grace for the Birds, who were looking entirely confused at this stage. It went from bad to worse after Cyril Künzler
dislocated his shoulder after it absorbed a stiff charge from Lim Cheng Hui, which however did open up a spot for José Luiz Velho
. The Brazilian's arrival heralded good things, with Kalki springing a surprise shot onto the Earthquakes' goalpost, even if Batok Earthquakes did manage another fine breakaway from that.
The impact of Kalki's attempt could not be overstated, from how the Birds were a changed team after the interval. Gone was the previous ponderous buildups and overthinking, as Grilled's forward line finally felt free to take risks; true, several good opportunities went begging, but this new tack didn't take long to take effect, with Velho stylishly equalizing in the 52nd minute, from a Florus Romijn
burst down the left.
Now was the Earthquakes' turn to seem unsure of themselves, what with the bevy of chances that they had missed earlier, and Chan Ze Han
wasn't about to let this opportunity pass. His heavily-defended chip didn't seem like the wisest course of action, with Mudaliar free and clear to his side, but it came off beautifully this time.
The visitors had gone from controlling to chasing the game in five short minutes, and they then too had to suffer the loss of a player, after Islom Davlatov
took Egil Borch out. Fresh Cameroonian signing Said Ngeh Ahamefula would thus be thrown into the deep end in only his fifth professional match, and he duly conceded a penalty soon after, by pulling Chan Ze Han
back. Bilal Mohammad Harun
took responsibility in the absence of Künzler, and psyched Valentin Mrejeru out with his slow run-up, causing the Romanian goalie to show his hand prematurely.
With their promotion hopes fading fast, a hyped Lee Long Chi all but ran Florus Romijn
over in his haste to regain possession, in the process inadvertently stomping the Grilled winger. That was definitely worthy of a second yellow for Lee, whose glumness as he strode off struck a stark contrast with Romijn smiling through the pain as he was subbed by Chu Xin Lee
The most dynamic sequence of the match - and possibly, of all qualifiers taking place this weekend - then followed. It began with a long goal-kick from Mrejeru that Aldabalde narrowly missed, which was answered by a carbon copy from Massoud Dob
, which required Mrejeru to save off Mudaliar. The corner was then turned into a whirlwind counter that ended with Chua Li Sze smashing it off the crossbar, after which the ball made it all the way to the other end of The Pot, where Chan drew another foul. Bilal took the free-kick following Gilbert Webb
's decoy run, but Mrejeru saw it coming.
Grilled arguably got the better of that exchange by not conceding, and they rode it to a rollicking finish against their visibly demoralized opponents. Kalki made Velho's second in the 83rd minute with a simple direct run taking Cardozo on, and returning captain Moey Xin Seng
marked his reinstatement in the most symbolic manner possible, powering through to find his first goal in three months.