Never Say Never
the team that never was defeated their Grilled challengers 4-3 in the seventeenth meeting between the sides, who had a largely even record in the eight seasons they were pitted together in the S-League. An entire generation of players had come and gone in that interval, but the tradition of close matches remained comfortingly unchanged, the Birds hanging in there till the last.
never's latest stay in the S-League lasted two seasons longer than Grilled's, and despite being relegated to II.1 after that, they were a constant threat to return to the top flight for some time after that, before lingering in mid-table. The arrival and improvement of clubs such as Robbie Football Club, Yew Tea and Siegmund United, among others, made promotion a challenge, and they finally went down again after an unexpectedly poor campaign.
Life in III.8 has thus far proven congenial, with star attackers Max Radenne and Xinés Siñeriz, both arriving with price tags in excess of S$9 million, in a class of their own. New French addition Nicolas Marissal has commanded midfield convincingly, and all three were on show against the Birds, led from the back by homegrown captain Jaafar bin Mahamad.
Grilled adapted their usual 2-5-3 to a 3-5-2, leaving a still-recovering Tian Yonghang
out to accomodate Ling Fuquan
as additional defender, with both having just tasted goal yesterday in the Cup. Shiya Shaahee
would then be given extra freedom wide right, as Niculae Stanca
experimented with rebalancing Grilled's offensive burden.
With an average of nearly five goals per game in this fixture, few expected to wait long for the opener, and Xinés Siñeriz got it in the 13th minute after Qassem Madaini
doffed a couple of headers wide. The Grilled defence was fooled by the complementary runs of Siñeriz and Michelangelo Petter, and Lin Jungui
's recovery came too late as the winger had gotten his shot off by then.
There was no let-up as Grilled threw themselves back into attack with gusto, and Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
took advantage of Shiya Shaahee
pulling both Heng Rong Kim and Hu Junwen to him to level just three minutes later. Shaahee has taken his time to fit into the Grilled system, but his effort appears to be bearing fruit, with only bad luck and the crossbar preventing him from making it 2-1 in favour of the Birds.
never's defence, which had been operating as a unit for close to ten seasons, stopped Grilled from getting most of the openings that would have been expected from their share of possession, then did a great job of biting back at the right time, Petter surging through in the 30th minute. The Birds were at times reduced to going route one, but for all of Mohd Safri's effectiveness as a target man, his knock-downs were too often anticipated.
never then increased their lead in the second half, as their patient build-up on the right paid dividends, when wingback Liu Yeng Shun found himself worked into space at the right corner of the penalty area. Dexter Stacey
got a touch on Liu's instinctive attempt, but neither that nor Ling Fuquan
's belated chase back stopped the ball from crossign the line.
Chow Ying Lee
would be the one to boost Grilled's flagging spirits, as he again took matters into his own hands, outsprinting the entire backline in the 65th minute. The forward had failed with his direct tactics many times before that, but as the opposition defenders discovered, it is hard to deny such enthusiasm and endeavour indefinitely.
They were not short on talent in the striking department either, though, and Max Radenne stamped his authority on the match, seven minutes from time. Division Two top scorer two seasons ago, the Frenchman already has sixteen to his name in eight appearances so far this season, and he proved it was no fluke with a glorious flick executed with nary a look, to make it 4-2.
Grilled weren't done yet, and Ling saved the game with a well-judged foul on Petter to keep hopes alive, before Mohd Safri belted it excellently from wide, only for Li Ciying to throw himself in the way just in time. Seytek Djekshenkulov
made sure of a cracking end after he headed home from a good Shaahee cross three minutes from time, which was followed by protests from never that it came off his arm.
It turned out to not quite be enough, and after coming under some heavy pressure, never retained bragging rights in this rivalry, having won their last league meeting as well.