Captain Closes Out
Auld Jurong rivals newbies are newbies took the Birds to the final whistle in a Round of Sixteen battle that engrossed all eighty thousand present from start till end, newbies' Italian striker Giulio Bollini taking his count against Grilled to five from six appearances with a sweet hat-trick, but it was none other than his Birds counterpart Tian Yonghang
who would finally decide the outcome barely two minutes from time.
While Grilled had just enjoyed their first league meeting against Joker 9 after several Cup clashes, it would be the exact opposite case with newbies. The Birds-newbies derbies had been one of the recurring features of II.2, occuring sixteen times between Season 44 and Season 53, and had been shared almost evenly between the two.
Despite coming off a slender 4-5 away loss to Blackburn Rovers Fan over the weekend, newbies had lit up II.1 overall with former national team legend Roshadi bin Che Rusli's unabashed offensive philosophy, with all eleven competitive matches they have been involved in thus far yielding no less than six goals. The corresponding figure was four for Grilled, though with an average of more than seven goals too, there seemed little danger of this turning into a snoozefest.
And indeed, there would be no Plan B for either side, both of whom kep to their favourite 2-5-3. The game had been billed as a head-on shootout at high noon against newbies' European gunslingers, anchored by target man Massimo Dichio, and of course, Grilled's homegrown trio. Secondary hotspots were predicted to be Polish pivot Grzegorz Pisarski against a well-rested Lee Lee Hao
, and the imagination of former U-20 winger and newbies fan idol Yue Haoping against Low Aik Jia
's sheer pace.
It wouldn't take long for the contest to explode after some barely-contained ribbing as the players came out of the tunnel, with Grilled first to make their mark. With newbies packing the centre when without the ball, Wong Ping Shun
had room to spare on the right, and skipper Zhang Ruotian could not get to his sharp cutback. Zhu Changchun
received it about two yards outside the penalty area, but 36 year-old goalie Javier Caamaño was never getting to Zhu's blistering half-volley to the far post.
Yue's turn to shine would come in turn, and four minutes after Grilled's fifth-minute opener, newbies were back level. Though Low maintained his concentration on marking for once, Yue bypassed him completely with a magnificently flighted pass, seemingly without looking. It was so exquisitely weighted that Ling Fuquan
missed heading it off by a whisker, while falling straight to Bollini. Wong Tian Han
was hung out to dry, given that Dichio was lurking too, and could only concede on the two-on-one.
This hopeless defending was more or less keeping in character for Grilled, who wisely decided to continue playing their own game. They would be repaid soon enough, as Chow Ying Lee
's Indian summer stretched on with a no-nonsense dash and fire by repurposed midfielder Daniel Quong. Tian Yonghang
wouldn't be left out either, and the Birds captain showed off his versatility with a long-ranged goal after dropping deep as support.
newbies were far from done themselves, and Dichio's height won him a fair few knockdowns against Gene Filippone
, despite the latter tending to have a positional advantage. One of these was cushioned perfectly for Pisarski, but he hit it straight to Wong Tian Han
. Bollini wouldn't make that mistake on newbies' hard-won free-kick in the 25th minute, in comparism, slotting home after Joel Haverhals coolly pinged it short to him.
Bollini had been a constant pick in the newbies frontline since arriving for some S$8.4 million almost ten seasons ago, and it was never as evident why. Despite being 33 years of age, his senses had barely dulled from his peak, as Ling would discover to his detriment seven minutes after the restart. A marginally loose first touch was enough for Bollini to feast on, and Ling's despairing tackle was smoothly vaulted by the Italian, who then got his hat-trick with a cheeky pullback before shooting.
had seen enough, and Low Aik Jia
would be sacrificed on the altar of increased possession. Ang Leong Kum
, who had been on a roll since his arrival, took over Low's spot on the left, with a mandate to rotate with the central three as required. Roshadi was seen conferring with his assistants once the substitution was announced, and not long afterwards, he signalled for his wingers to tuck in too.
It was not immediately clear who had the better of those adjustments, but the record will show that it was the Birds that pulled ahead yet again. Before that, however, the respective defensive units would get their moment in the sun. First, Caamaño dove brilliantly to deny Tian Yonghang
what looked like a certain finish, while Ling Fuquan
finally got the better of Bollini in the ensuing newbies counterstrike.
The spectators were getting their money's worth, that was for sure, and there seemed little chance that they had seen the last of the goals, from how the flow was progressing. Defence had never been the team's strong suit, and after seventy-plus minutes of hard running, yet more gaps were beginning to open all over the field.
Comeback kid Lee Lee Hao
would be the one to threaten a winning goal, after Ang gave a good impression of the departed Low with his scuttling up the left side. Lee had been publicly chastened by Bacelar for his irresponsible red card in the previous round, but his all-around good citizenship and industry would be further burnished by a wonderful left-footed power strike today. Only the most hard-hearted of Grilled supporters could stand to continue holding his trangressions against him after that, certainly.
Unfortunately for the Birds, newbies still had fight enough remaining. A 4-3 lead with ten minutes remaining was hardly game over, and Pisarski continued to win the needed challenges in midfield. 84 minutes had gone when Yue Haoping, helped by Dichio's central threat attracting personnel inside, blazed past Ang Leong Kum
for once with a deceptively slow elastico as setup. Peter Haley slid in but just missed connecting, which was probably just as well as the better-placed Joel Haverhals then clipped it past the wrongfooted Wong Tian Han
Extra-time, which was probably what newbies deserved, now loomed, but one man at least was not about to allow it, if he had any say. Tian Yonghang
saw his chance when Leow Jing Ting tried to turn on the ball, and snuck inside his blind spot to poach the late, late winner.