Honour In Defeat
The Allsvenskan is the original league of the Hattrick universe, and Grilled Birds would take on its reigning champion Dicanio in the first knockout round of the Trophy of Legends tournament. Sadly, this would finish in a slender loss for the Birds, but they could be proud of having come this far.
Known for their tactical flexibility under head coach George Stenberg, Dicanio had won their previous three games with different formations, and the squad's commitment to interchangeability and unity was exemplified by many of their players having adopted the same last name. Gimmick or not, this left former Spanish youth international forward Carlos Zumárraga as the lone holdout in their starting lineup today, as they sought to test Manuel Vadalà
as much as they were able.
's arrangement for this occasion would be Chan Ze Han
in the trequartista role, at the bottom of an inverted triangle with Bernie Egan
and Vikram Mudaliar
; Egan had been basically unstoppable this past week, and Serpin made it no secret that the team were counting on him to deliver again. Moey Xin Seng
would support in midfield, and despite Kalle ter Berg
, Chu Xin Lee
and Wu Jinglong
remaining unavailable to injury, the Birds' bench remained fairly well-stocked.
All of the early aggression would be shown by Grilled, and in particular Vikram Mudaliar
, who made it his personal mission to pick on Swiss leftback Godot Steinberg. He burst to the outside of Steinberg in the fourth minute for one of the best chances of the day, only to get his own feet tangled on the windup. Nineteen minutes in, Mudaliar again beat his man down the sidelines, but once more allowed his haste to get the better of him, in preparing the cross.
Dicanio, while perhaps stirred to action, weren't too shaken by those attacks, as they patiently sought a good shooting position from around the boundary of Grilled's penalty area. There was no preventing this forever, and there was nobody left near homegrown star Glen Stenberg in the 26th minute, after a series of quick passing had dragged Grilled's defenders hither and thither. He unleashed from twenty-five yards, and fears over Vadalà's dependability were rekindled, as the goalkeeper flubbed the stop.
Grilled refused to let that get them down, and equalized about five minutes later, as Teo Chuan Yong
made the most of Moey's distraction down the right. This was the least that the uncomplaining midfielder could have received, for all the tough luck he had suffered in his Birds career thus far. Unfortunately, this was also the beginning of a great patch for the Swedes, starting with Gösta Stenberg outpacing Mateja Jeftić
- who is looking increasingly vulnerable to speed - to restore their lead with an exquisitely-executed lob.
It was then 3-1 off another Vadalà letdown, as Godot Steinberg appeared to have gotten the slightest of touches on Zumárraga's rammed shot from distance. The ball remained more or less straight at the goalie, who however neglected to get his gloves down in time. Adding to the misery, Kalki Parvathaneni
would then be carded for interfering with Godot on that move.
The best that could be said was that Grilled were not obviously outmatched just yet, and the way they raised their game on the restart deserved some plaudits. The Birds were actually quite dangerous whenever they managed to bring the ball to the final third, and Mudaliar would finally have his way in the 59th minute, as he scooted past Dicanio's centrebacks to reduce.
That wouldn't last very long, as Dicanio hadn't forgotten how to break through either, and the Birds' need to expose themselves in their chase had left more than enough space for them to move into. There were acres left between Grilled's midfield and defensive lines in the 63rd minute when Bilal Mohammad Harun
got picked off, and fullback Gary Stenberg would pop up some sixty metres upfield from his usual post, to make it 4-2 Dicanio.
Serpin did have some choices, and Bhavya Panigrahi
would make way for Gilbert Webb
with twenty minutes left, as the head coach sought to have Grilled advance with more urgency from the back. That did seem to have some effect, as the Birds clawed it back to 4-3 a couple of minutes on; Bernie Egan
would live up to expectations, as he elbowed his way onto Kalki's slipped-through forward ball, and pumped it past the goalie to make it nine scoring tourney matches in a row.
That lifted the Birds' spirits immensely, but before they could have another go, they would first have to survive a Dicanio counter - which they did as Manuel Vadalà
came good against Glen Stenberg's cracking drive from wide left. Kalki would be taken off for Heng Dong Chu
as Grilled kept the pressure up, but alas there would be no saviour for them to arrive in time.