Dalstål Digs In
Grilled fought their way back from 0-3 down to secure a five-all draw after a splendid SpartanSG onslaught all but buried the Birds in the first half-hour. They could nearly even have won it, but Mok Kim Sze protected the Spartans' first point against Grilled with the game back level after a completely unlikely turnaround.
SpartanSG had come back off a heavy defeat to Rapala FC by pulverizing Robbie Football Club, with Lóránt Somogyi their only remaining long-term concern. Visitors Grilled were sweating on the fitness of Zhu Changchun
, and would be disappointed after club doctors assessed that the 25 year-old midfield mainstay could do with a few more days of rest.
The encounter had attracted near 59000 to The Kherubim, where they were led out by newcomer skipper Håkan Dalstål. The Swede right wingback lined up behind Christian Casablanca in what is rapidly blossoming into a productive partnership, while 19 year-old Wong Nie Tze again stood in for the missing Somogyi.
Without Zhu, the Birds opted to stick with one wing dedicated to attack, and Shiya Shaahee
started a second consecutive league match on the right, with Gleb Dorogan
gaining the nod over Abdul bin Jantan
and Alex Fonseca
for the left slot. None of that mattered very much as the hosts tore into an unprepared Grilled defence from the start, however, with the Birds' engine room hardly getting enough space to breathe.
They had never quite settled when Dalstål hopped his way past Dorogan and then Qassem Madaini
in quick succession, with a smoothness seldom seen in men his size. Edmund Kryus
made to come out, then thought better of it, but Dalstål placed it into the bottom corner with guile anyway.
Grilled tried to work a few moves together, but suffered another blow when Joachim November appeared to run right into Ling Fuquan
well inside the penalty area, after flicking the ball into space. It looked a nothing incident to the Grilled fans, but referee Marko Novotny had other ideas, and ruled it an obstruction, giving the penalty while not even booking Ling. Kryus moved the right way, but Lin Lai Pin's conversion was hard and low enough.
There could be no complaints about the third, after young jack-of-all-trades Wong Nie Tze had the time of his life darting past three Grilled players to poke it home, and the Kherubim was literally rocking as the home support showed its appreciation.
A few heads were seen to drop among the Grilled team, and only timely intervention by Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
kept it from turning into a bloodbath. Shiya Shaahee
was as usual a willing runner along the right touchline, but his cross appeared to be headed for Reinout van der Meer - until Mohd Safri cut ahead with a barely-legal flying kick, and swiped a wild one upon landing to send the ball spinning past Mok.
Although Joachim November re-established SpartanSG's three-goal lead within two minutes after a horrendous misplaced pass by lu Zunwen
, Mohd Safri's contribution was still not to be understated as it kept the Birds from completely collapsing. Niculae Stanca
, who had been raving in front of the dugout after the penalty was awarded, did his bit by yelling at his charges to just focus on keeping it tight.
Grilled definitely needed something special to turn it around from here, and Abdul bin Jantan
was seen warming up through the interval, but Stanca decided to stick with Dorogan in the end. As well he did, as five minutes into the half, the vice-captain held off Dalstål before finding Tian Yonghang
peeling back, and Tian extended his scoring streak to an impressive seven games with an instinctive strike on the turn.
It was still winding up to be the Spartans' day, though, and all indications pointed to a clear win by the home team after Dalstål got his second with another unstoppable rampage down the right. The crowd were bouncing joyfully as the scoreboard displayed 5-2, with their heroes piled up by the corner flag in celebration.
This time, however, it was the Birds who would answer in double-quick time. Shaahee was done providing assists, and advanced to flummoxing Sergio Vázquez completely with a quite breathtaking rotation while dragging the ball underfoot. Vázquez had not quite figured out what had happened when Shaahee followed through to find the back of the net despite Mok's attentions.
That was the signal for Chow Ying Lee
to take centrestage, and the former U-20 speedster showed how much he has matured, grittily wading through a sea of bodies and then a couple to tackles to reduce the difference to a single goal. The Chow of a few seasons ago might very well have turned ineffectually to the linesman after getting bumped out by the first defender, but this vintage had the determination to persevere.
There would be an equaliser soon enough, after Shaahee eluded all comers once more on the right and slung a belter onto the crossbar. Chow had dutifully followed up his new favourite winger, and combined his diligence with wonderful reaction speed to get his head behind the fierce rebound.
The hosts were disbelieving at this sudden change in fortunes, and Stanca, sensing a change in the wind, immediately waved Gleb Dorogan
in to let Alex Fonseca
loose on the disoriented Spartans. This led to a reversal of roles, with Grilled now hammering on the doors, and SpartanSG grimly hanging on.
While there would be other close shaves, lu Zunwen
's solo one-on-one against Mok in the 72nd minute was probably Grilled's top opportunity to claim an incredible comeback. The veteran former Phantasm Hotspurs and national U-20 star went from virtual spectator in the first half to overworked saviour as the match neared its end, receiving a hard knock from Mohd Safri into the bargain, but managed to deny the Birds ultimate victory.