Losing One's Marbles
Laying On The Pein
Grilled's Supporter Week Trophy run would be halted by Dhivehi League challengers World Marbles Federation in the first knockout round, as the affiliates of the Czech Republic's Český kuličkový svaz raised their game towards the finish to get through. Before that, the Birds hadn't been doing too badly, and were leading into the 77th minute, when Marbles embarked on their final surge.
There were absolutely no surprises about the tactics that Marbles were employing, not that their opponents have been able to do much about it despite that knowledge; Marbles had just lifted Maldives' Emerald Challenger Cup with a 4-0 rout of FC Tropic Thunder in the finals through their distance shooting alone, even if the more conventional approach of Bacardi Beach Boys and Alrighty Warriors had been more reliable in the league. The Birds were not entirely unacquainted with this style, that said, having just defeated two-time Bulgarian cupwinners Favorit - who operate in a very similar way - in another tournament.
Marbles had not for nothing been hailed as having perfected their sniping form, for all that, and their midfield marksmen trio of Kazimierz Complak, Maxim Boyko and captain Cristoph Pein had reaped 23 goals between them last season. Moreover, behind them all stood former Argentine youth international goalkeeper Juan Cruz Sassone, a blockbuster S$37.5 million signing from Albania's Fc Juniku Official, famed as one of the top shotstoppers to be had anywhere.
Salah Kamal was never one to be cowed by reputation, though, and the Palestine midfielder would not be shy about sending a drive Sassone's way, after just four minutes. It certainly diminished a little of the indomitable aura that Sassone had been emitting, and would also yield a yellow card for Iraj Farmani's follow-through on Kamal. Unfortunately, Wu Jinglong
's free-kick left much to be desired.
It was mostly Marbles doing the knocking on the door for the next twenty minutes or so, as they were doubtless informed of Grilled's intention to wait for opportunities. It isn't too hard to not overextend when one just wants to take pops from twenty-five or thirty yards, of course, which Jacobo Gómez and Iraj Farmani attempted in turn. Massoud Dob
was no slouch in the goaltending department either, though, and he would gather both shots cleanly enough.
Grilled's break came in the 28th minute, as they finally got to unlock the high line that Marbles were pushing. This was no easy matter, given how aware of each others' positions their defenders tended to be, but Moey Xin Seng
made a breach with some ambitious dribbling. Help arrived in the form of Heng Dong Chu
cutting across Pasquale Moratti from the left, and the winger would find the tiniest of gaps between Sassone and his far post.
Marbles kept on with what they knew, and from the volume of shots that they were getting off, it was perhaps not expected that one of them would find their way in. Kazimierz Complak held it up expertly for Cristoph Pein, who bent it beautifully around Dob, and into the top corner. Complak then tried a crafty pass on a free-kick, that however was nearly turned into a successful counterattack, concluding with a save by Sassone on Chan Ze Han
The second half resumed with the Birds gradually assuming the initiative, with Kamel continuing to be one of their main drivers; the Palestine star has thrived particularly in high-pressure situations, as during the Singapore Cup final, and he once more evinced very little fear in experimenting against the Marbles' centrebacks. Grilled's left side was seriously imposing itself around the 58th minute, which was when Kamel broke through to make it 2-1. Sassone did get a hand on it, but only enough to slow the ball's progress into his net.
Sassone was coming under heavy siege now, as Grilled's left side continued to impose their will, and the pace of Bernie Egan
would very nearly lead to a third goal in the 62nd minute. Defensively, Grilled were doing quite well too, as they tempted their opponents to close further in. One of these counters would result in Chan again presented with a half-chance from a long clearance, but it just wasn't the Number Eleven's day in front of goal.
Marbles' renaissance would begin following that miss, and from one of their less-acknowledged dimensions; a common side-effect of shooting in bulk was a surfeit of corner kicks, and it was soon evident that they had devoted quite a bit of practice to those too. Complak's delivery into the middle of the box could not be faulted, and neither could Pasquale Moratti's flying header, that endured Kalle ter Berg
's midair challenge without flinching.
With it all level again, Eren Serpin
would put Cyril Künzler
on for Heng, in an effort to freshen up Grilled's most potent avenue of attack. Sadly, it turned out to be inconsequential, as Marbles' distance shooting finally came good. Massoud Dob
had dealt with maybe a dozen of them by the time Sisto Vellutini unleashed his scorcher from the edge of the penalty area, and his agility would finally fail him on this. Grilled would give what they had in the eight minutes remaining to them, only for Marbles to confirm the win through a fourth by Jovan Vasić, in injury time.