Chow Saves Campaign
Grilled patched together what was, in the memory of longtime followers, probably the best collective performance of their existence - in the attacking sense at least. However, since their opponents were -= Manchester United =-, this brought them nothing more than a fighting draw, and a fair shot at overhauling them in the remaining two fixtures.
The over 90000 who had assembled at The Cooking Pot was the largest home attendance in eight seasons, since some 95000 came to watch a Qassem Madaini
-led side crash 3-5 against heimu XI. If heimu weren't the Birds' favourite team to meet, United are probably even lower on that scale, having lost six of their seven competitive meetings with the City-based stalwarts.
Still, Grilled had reason to look forward to this game, as they were at more or less full strength, with the exception of Woon Shun An
. Having the luxury of deciding which of the four healthy central midfielders to play, Djan Bacelar
figured why not all, and stuck Lee Lee Hao
in defense alongside Gene Filippone
, with the intention of letting his players rotate by themselves.
Newly-installed United head coach Fernando Moa was nothing if not adaptable, though, and the Italian eschewed the free-flowing champagne football that had seen them head the table. In its place was a foreboding five-man defence, with only current Algerian national striker Aziz Djeghbala roaming the front by his lonesome.
While United's players stuck to this system loyally, it wasn't hard to get the sense that they were not particularly into sitting back. The Birds were, in contrast, totally in their element, and a huge shout went about the stadium when Chow Ying Lee
took on Łukasz Roszkowiak in the 13th minute, and blew past him to register the opener.
This could have gotten ugly had Wong Ping Shun
's speculative attempt gone in three minutes later, but Sylvain Barning had the rub of the green as it skipped precariously off his far post before settling smack on the goalline. He hooked it wide to Finnish winger Markus Närhi, who had free reign on the right since Low Aik Jia
had dutifully tried to follow up, and Närhi took it all the way with understated speed.
This was a scenario that the Grilled fans had become dreadfully accustomed to. In reaction, the players began roughing it up somewhat, with Djeghbala taking a big hit from an aggressive Lee. United responded in kind, but did not getting the better of the exchanges as first Ot Genovè, and then his substitute Friedger Hengen, were put out of commission.
In between, Närhi had threatened to polish off another counter after Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
messed up what was a routing header, and Filippone got the only card of the game for delaying United's free-kick. The lack of familiarity with the 5-4-1 would finally cost the visitors two minutes from half-time, as Tian Yonghang
crept into the penalty area without being picked up, and flipped a pass magically over Lauri Ruokonen before volleying it beyond Barning.
United were, however, United, and they took barely three minutes to return level. Grilled's defensive nous was nothing to shout about, and once United made a resolute drive down the middle, it crumbled swiftly. Lee showed himself to be at best an emergency centreback as he bought Djeghbala's bait willingly, leaving Dumitru Coca the time to square up against Wong Tian Han
The Birds kept the tempo up, but Low Aik Jia
's breathtaking rush down the left that took him past four men ended in a splutter, as he fell over his own feet trying to dig it into the box.
Disaster then struck in the 68th minute, as Mohd Safri's bid to become the hero was refused by Barning, who courageously threw his body against the striker's feet to block the point-blank shot. Again, Närhi was the beneficiary as Tomasz Kansy didn't wait to kick it out wide to him, and who else would it be but Djeghbala who would break Grilled hearts, by squeezing in an off-balance header to give United the lead?
There was four minutes of moping before Grilled finally breached the United goal with a team effort, as Wong barged through the right before getting it across for Chow to nick in. However, this was about as much as the Birds would get against a United defence now determined to preserve at least a point, and they would not collect the victory that would effectively have sealed the title.