Batok Earthquakes looked to have executed the perfect smash-and-grab raid at The Cooking Pot, but Grilled Birds then paged in with a scarcely less impressive salvage job, that left the destination of the II.1 title wide open. While the clubs' previous meeting provided the same scoreline and much drama, the tension at the end would only be topped by today's programme.
If there was ever a sign of how deep the Earthquakes' backline was, current national centreback Ibrahim Mohd Azmil did not even make the starting lineup after taking on the likes of Brazil and Uganda the past week, with the assumed-fresher Chua Li Sze filling in between Ibrahim's international colleagues Alfian bin Abdul Hamid and Tan Kong Lai. Lee Long Chi, who had just outgrown the U-20 squad, was also held in reserve.
Then again, Ibrahim being sent off in that last meeting might have tilted Mariusz Szałański's hand, and in any case it was no secret what the visitors were planning to do. They all but invited the Birds to attack them from the starting whistle, to which Grilled were only too happy to oblige.
The slow decline of Grilled's attacking quality has however been painful to observe, in particular with age catching up to Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
and Rinor Isufi
yet to replicate the instinctive empathy that Chow Ying Lee had built up with his strike partners over a decade, and there was little that the Earthquakes' luminaries found remotely challenging.
Not only that, they didn't even bothered to mount counterstrikes for the first half an hour, but after a drawn-out Low Aik Jia
assault petered out then, Italian wingback Silvano De Rogatis saw his chance. Nipping past a couple of unconvincing tackles on the right, he drew enough attention to open a channel for countryman Nunzio Viscusi, who tucked the final pass away all too simply.
Earthquakes pulled the same thing off almost immediately after Clément Meyer
raised false hopes with a sterling strike that Fausto Chiara forced onto the crossbar, with Faziallah bin Othman reacting the quickest on the opposite flank. Again, there was precious little going on at the back for the Birds, and after some desperate delaying by Gene Filippone
, Henri Larsen swooped in to crash the contested ball in off Wong Tian Han
This was perhaps Grilled's nightmare scenario, and certainly became it when they suffered a third rerun of essentially the same thing right from the second-half kick-off. Likely having heeded calls to be cautious, Grilled managed a promising buildup down the right side, but after Wong Ping Shun
's cross was cleared, a couple of pinpoint long balls got the ball to Golden Boot leader Dietmar Dunkel, who improvised brilliantly with a reverse flicked header for his 22nd of the season.
The visiting fans were in full song now, confident that the forthcoming five-point advantage would all but secure them their first Division Two championship. And, with a fresh Lee Long Chi joining in the fray for Fazaillah with barely forty minutes remaining, three goals appeared all but impossible for a disspirited Grilled outfit to make up.
And so it was, up to and until Chua's almost casual trip on Tian Yonghang
in the 64th minute. It was a weapon that had been all but forgotten in the proceedings, but Wong Ping Shun
soon reminded the Earthquakes of how lethal his right boot could be. His no-frills powershot has been judged as next to unsaveable when on target, and Fausto Chiara could indeed only watch as it lasered into the far top corner.
While there was little that hinted at it being anything more than a one-off, the visitors' aura of invincibility had been chipped, and the Birds began to regain some of their accustomed audacity. A bit of showboating by Low Aik Jia
, while strictly speaking unnecessary, brought some much-needed heart to his comrades, while riling Humberto Laportilla sufficiently to put in a rash sliding tackle, that brought the game's first booking.
The free-kick was definitely too far out this time, but the effect had been made, and Low would bring it all to fruition three minutes on. Taking De Rogatis for speed, he sprung the Earthquakes' defence fair and square for the first time on the afternoon, and Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
's positioning did not fail him; he set himself up nicely to redirect the inbound delivery into the net, despite Tan Kong Lai's attempted block.
There was a genuine air of belief around the stadium now as the pent-up home support cut loose, and Batok Earthquakes were now clearly feeling threatened. Their easy mastery of the first half was gone, replaced by a ragged if even more defiant stand, and the question was whether Grilled could breach it again, before they ran out of time.
The Earthquakes' players were of course too good not to hold up play as much as they could, and their doubling up on Low Aik Jia
resulting in a yellow for the winger in the 80th minute, born more from exasperation than anything. However, this would also presage their downfall, as the much-maligned Clark Won
came away with it from the conservative clearance, and outdribbled Alfian and Chua in perhaps the high point of his Grilled career, before sending the crowd wild with the equaliser.
The Cooking Pot rang with demands for a fairytale winner in the ten minutes to go, which was definitely within grasp with the Earthquakes all but constrained to their own penalty area, but Chiara's stops from Mohd Safri and Rinor Isufi
meant that the Grilled faithful had to be content with a glorious but incomplete comeback.