The Emerald Dream
Their fans called, and Farmer Bunnies delivered, as they defeated JUtd in the Emerald Challenger Cup finals to earn their first-ever national-level trophy. It had been a long, hard road with many false starts, and while the Buns had won their last five, the large margins of the early season were well behind them. JUtd had in contrast hammered five past their quarterfinals and semifinals opponents,
There was one notable absence on each side, with Norwegian wingman Edgar Knudtzon having failed to recover from the spinal injury he suffered against LA XI in the quarters. The flanks, however, were a department that JUtd were overstocked in, with S$18.9 million man Giridhar Date coincidentally having just been called up to the Indian national team. On the Buns side, custodian Kalle Luik
made his debut as expected, with the stricken Vivian Grubenmann
having to watch from the VIP box. Grubenmann couldn't help being slightly glum, seeing as he would be missing the most important match of his career, through no fault of his own.
The commentators had certainly researched their facts, from how they congratulated Sofian Azfar
on his three hundredth appearance - including friendlies - as the teams lined up; judging from his expression, Azfar was blissedly unaware of that. Brendan Leung
took his time during his handshake with JUtd's deep-lying forward Sönke Spiller, which would presage an intense cat-and-mouse between the duo. Spiller's existence also meant that there was no place for heading specialist Adrián Jáuregi, who had scored both of JUtd's goals, last the teams met.
Tactically, there were no real surprises from the Jurong side, as they kept to the adventurous 2-5-3 that had overpowered both Claseek and LA XI in the previous rounds. Perhaps even more offensive than Grilled Birds' variant, JUtd was more than capable of both central rushes and sleek overlapping plays, with their full-spectrum capabilities overwhelming so many of their opponents. Against this, Buns head coach Dalibor Kostadinović
had a very simple response: total defence.
Unlike that last meeting, Farmer Bunnies were unashamedly seeking to stall, and Luik surely couldn't have asked for any more than the iron shield that formed up in front of him. The sole exception would be striker Mushtag Al-Nameeri
, who was allowed to try and get things to happen on his own, hanging off JUtd's last man. This didn't deter JUtd much, as they began pressing in, as was their standard operating practice.
Football theorists have made much of the essential advantage of attackers in the game, but the Buns were out to prove that wrong. JUtd were having a hard time finding any space at all, at least until the 23rd minute, when a slip saw Spiller get the best chance they would have; he kept the ball in with a wondrous second touch as Luik flailed, but the goalkeeper had done enough - the remaining angle was too tight for Spiller to navigate.
This developed into a potential counter for the Buns, but the outlet pass for Mushtag Al-Nameeri
would be intelligently cut out by Fabrice Rousse, and the resulting indirect free-kick wasted. Undaunted, the hardworking Al-Nameeri sprayed a wild volley to ground over the bar some five minutes after that, before a breathless end-to-end sequence that had Vladimir Križnik and Tham Leng Teck
come short with their finishers.
And then it came. Lau Chang Wan
started the move, pushing the ball past Sebastian Gamper, as JUtd's players were taken aback by his forwardness. The chase was on as the Buns pivoted cautiously about the central axis, as Lau began segueing infield, with only Namdar Zarar
and Kwek Yun Jie
in support. Against all expectations, this wound up to be sufficient, as Kwek buried an absolute cracker from nowhere, in at the near post.
The excessive movement of the ball had taken it past Vietnamese former U-20 keeper Lâm Thế Thiện, to an outburst of pent-up tension from all parties. The excitement was so complete, in fact, that when Brendan Leung
added a second three minutes later, nobody had noticed Namdar Zarar
lying on the grass whilst clutching his back, a legacy of his overstretching it for Kwek's opening strike.
This was exactly what Kostadinović had been dreaming of, and from his signalling on the sidelines, the message was unmissable - back to defence. JUtd were feeling the pressure, and there was a forced quality to much of their play that persisted long into the second half. Lau Chang Wan
could have really rubbed in it with his wind-up volley in the 55th minute, but he caught that poorly with his instep.
JUtd regained their composure as they started to get a greater and greater proportion of possession, and they forced a great save out of Kalle Luik
in the 68th minute, after a foul and minor foot injury to Giridhar Date on their left wing. About four minutes after that close shave, a rare moment of panic from Vishnu Tallapaka
saw Austrums Bizāns open for a shot, but Bizāns turned out to be unprepared, and Luik cleared the danger with a superman punch.
While the clock was running down, JUtd were actually looking more and more like getting a goal back, which would have been exceedingly dangerous given their momentum. Farmer Bunnies were stalling for time now, and several of their players would flirt with a caution, as they held on to the ball for as long as they could get away with, on throw-ins and the like. The JUtd support were irate, but Tham for one was unaffected.
Sönke Spiller, who had been shut down by Brendan Leung
for the majority of the match, would get his go at redemption in the 83rd minute. With a previous backheel by Gyula Bori having carved, if not the whole defence, then at least a clear path, Spiller went the direct route, with only Azfar remaining available to block. The German forward looked desperately around for a layoff opportunity, but Ovidio París and Jérôme Gérard sadly hadn't received the memo, and Spiller's own overbaked attempt would be gathered easily.
JUtd's edge would be blunted by that miss, which to many was their last and greatest hope at a comeback. Nurlan Ablaev
would arrive on a mission to chase the ball down, whereever it might go, with three minutes of normal time remaining, though Date would have one last stab at it, as he was played in down the left. Kalle Luik
wasn't in a mood to have his clean sheet spoilt, though, and he was there with a leg sweep, as the Buns achieved final victory.