Of Great Price
Grilled got off with a bang as they worked their way to a first league win over Pearl Divers, who gave an early scare before the Birds took control. Two draws in the last season stood testament to Divers' tenacity, but Grilled captain Tian Yonghang
was in perhaps the best form of his life, and he led his team to an almost methodical dissection of the visitors.
Divers' coach Nechifor Gherman stuck with his 4-5-1 approach against the Birds, with the notable absence of former national star Mak Chao Puay, who moved for S$7 million to Georgian Umaglesi Liga side hereti a couple of days ago. Gone too were Takeru Kobayashi and Michelangelo Viapiana, but in return they signed Spanish Number Two Alfredo Gandarilla, who did not feature today, and Chilean orchestrator Jaques Genz, who did.
While the Birds had not made any major signings or sales, there were some slightly unfamiliar names in the mix, as squaddies Lee Lee Hao
and Clément Meyer
started alongside each other in midfield for once. Djan Bacelar
had stressed that they had made the starting lineup on merit, however, and they did little to suggest otherwise.
Pearl Divers made little effort at contesting possession, instead yielding the ball to the Birds and waiting for mistakes. Grilled obliged, and after Chow Ying Lee
whiffed at a volley in the eighth minute, Swedish fullback Daniel Nilsson carried it nearly all the way back down the left. Theo Fels von Hartenstein moved in tandem on the other flank, and met Nilsson's cross with authority to score.
Divers' defense came along excellently in the meantime, and Grilled lapsed back into the aimless meandering that had plagued the second part of their last campaign. Lee got a careless booking, and Rashid Postnikov nearly hit the Birds with another counterpunch following Wong Ping Shun
's 35th minute miss.
Ironically, it would be a slip by the visitors that would let Grilled back into the game, as Marian Mungiu's strange pass from the free-kick that Ling Fuquan
gave up found its way to Tian. This was Tian's time to shine, and he made good distance down the middle, before offloading for Clément Meyer
to complete the move by breaking by Talip Berfu.
Grilled had been keeping it on the ground due to the height in Pearl Divers' backline, but Ling Fuquan
's surprise cross from the restart near caught them napping; unfortunately, Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
wasn't much better, and Manzoor Azwira Mohd Hassan spared no time in recovering the ball.
The half ended soon after, and Zhu Changchun
would not reappear after the break, having been replaced by Zhao Jing Wei
. The Grilled vice-captain was clearly out to win it, and he relentlessly drove his teammates forward with his positive, almost urgent, passing, which wore on some.
Chow Ying Lee
for one was getting distinctly uncomfortable under the sweltering sun, but he put it all out of his head when Zhao picked him out with a delectable through pass in the 53rd minute. Divers' centrebacks converged on him, but Chow sent the ball spinning into the top corner.
With lead secured, the tenor of the game changed as Divers were forced to become more aggressive, which suited Tian Yonghang
just fine. While perhaps not quite reaching the dizzying heights of Wednesday's Cup virtuoso performance, Tian was still near-unmarkable, and he moved at will through about anybody the opponents sent at him.
He was, in fact, double-teamed in the 61st minute, but he simply found a gap to slip it through to meet Wong Ping Shun
's run down the right. Wong drove it into the space in front of the cautious Divers back four, and Mohd Safri nipped inside to fire it in, despite all the flailing legs in the way.
The two-goal advantage was apparently enough for Bacelar, who immediately motioned for Woon Shun An
to get on and help preserve it. Low Aik Jia
, who had to make way, didn't look particularly happy about the decision, but was mature enough to at least exchange a high-five with his substitute.
Woon for his part did what he had to, which mostly involved shackling Vano Adamiani, which he was arguably rather more dedicated to than Low. Divers' only clear opportunity to reduce came in the 77th minute when Mosè Corghi got in behind him, but Wong Tian Han
threw himself across goal to make the save.
then made the necessary adjustments to see out the game, and by the time Rashid bin Ahmad
came on as Grilled's last sub to while away a few more seconds, the Birds were cruising along very smoothly indeed.