Chia Raring To Go
Bukit Gombak had kept five of the players that had humiliated the Birds 7-1 in the Ruby Challenger Cup five seasons past, but it was Grilled who came up well on top in this repeat, with the intervening time making all the difference for their younglings. Lim An Keng
, Mohd Marzuki Khairul
and Hwang Teck Fu
were all leaps and bounds above where they were as teenagers then, but the most satisfied would have to be Chia Kwang Tse
, who suppressed his Gombak equivalents while securing two vital early goals.
Definitely, Gombak's own midfield pride had also improved from then, with their core trio of Quintin Chan, Sim Sze Yi and Chong Sze Keng just about to enter their prime at 26 years old each. Former Thai youth international right winger Jeerawat Thongpailin was getting on in years at 36, however, with Greek captain Kirilos Arsenikos touching forty. Arsenikos would share a joke with countryman Dimitris Germanakos
as they strode onto the field, but the rest of the day would not be as jocular for him.
It seemed hard to pick a developing Birds side over Gombak's undoubted firepower, with Italian head coach Gian Franco Silini prioritizing the blending of his midfield with a powerful attack, very much also Tian Yonghang
's style. What let them down then was probably the linkage, as Lim An Keng
demonstrated in the third minute as he clipped short passes hither and thither, before sliding Chia Kwang Tse
through. The grounder seemed too close to Arsenikos, but made it through nonetheless.
Grilled then had some nervous moments as Gombak pressed their case, but some busy coverage from the midfielders carried the Birds through these harder times, and they would have Federico Parada
cop a second from the penalty spot in the 17th minute, after Uzbek veteran Yodgor Toshmatov seemed to have brought Brian Reddy
down right on the edge of the box. That was a seriously bad matchup for Toshmatov, but the Birds were mostly going through the middle anyway. Chia would make it three in the 35th pouncing on a miscontrolled defensive pass, between notable attempts by Joe Reece
and Damian Hutter
Half-time came and went with Silini not looking at all amused on the touchline, and Gombak came out chastened, and stronger for it. Their forward three were certainly too good to leave without at least a goal for their troubles, and there was no stopping United Arab Emirates right-sided striker Sohrab Merdasi, once he was through in the 52nd minute. It got even better for Gombak as Arsenikos then guessed the right way on Parada's second penalty take, and Maurizio Carella slid home the finish, after Thongpailin had bust his guts with a fifty-yard rush up the right.
All the momentum felt like it was with Gombak now, at least until the referee had their fans in fits, with a third
penalty call for Grilled. In his defence, there was nothing else he could have done once Sim Sze Yi caught Phua Ming Xin
's trailing leg chasing from the back, however, and Parada was not about to let this one go. The Bolivian skipper took his time placing the ball, and struck it fearlessly to the top right corner for 4-2.
Gombak kept at it, and never seemed completely out of contention, but it was all going the Birds' way now. Their younger midfield was covering a lot more ground, and the raw intensity would translate to Orest Tokarz
crashing through for 5-2, in the 74th minute. The Grilled support didn't like Tian taking Chia off for Chad Thach
in the aftermath, but with Joe Reece
then upping another as Grilled attacked across the width of the pitch, they couldn't have had much to vent about.
It was surely too late for Gombak even had Rambod Eftekhari headed Thongpailin's tempting long cross into the net soon after Reece's strike, but Germanakos was not in a generous mood anyhow, with a lightning-fast lunge to his post. By the time Hwang Teck Fu
and Gandhik Chitre
came on for Lim and Reece in the 89th minute, the match had slowed to a crawl, and Grilled stroked it around in stoppage time for the win.