Steady Does It
Isufi At The Double
Three points have seldom tasted sweeter, as Grilled came out of their Jurong derby against Batok Earthquakes with them in hand. Mariusz Szałański stuck grimly to the unusual defensive 2-5-3 that he had kept faith with all season long, but as too often has been the case, it fell slightly short.
The home fans got the boost they had been hoping for, with the late news than Tian Yonghang
had been cleared to start. There was some reshuffling elsewhere too, with Yuta Nakakita
shifted back into defence, ostensibly to protect against the prolific Dietmar Dunkel; Mohammad Ramli Saliman
would fill his previous spot in central midfield.
There was a single change from the Earthquakes side that had been beaten 0-2 by the Birds earlier in the campaign, which was Croatian debutant Marin Canjuga in for departed veteran Humberto Laportilla in midfield. He would be in for a rude awakening as Neeraj Muthyala
drove past him with Low Aik Jia
drawing attention wide right, and in the ensuing uncertainty, Rinor Isufi
reeled off a glancing header to put Grilled ahead.
That was just three minutes into the game, and the Earthquakes quickly found themselves drawn again into a heavily defensive posture. If anything, they were only too willing to dig in despite behind behind, but it could have brough dividends when the teenaged Egil Borch broke ranks to press ahead in the 18th minute. Spotting the expanse of space available, Mohammad Ramli Saliman
spared no effort in bringing the Norwegian down, settling for the certain booking.
The Earthquakes were definitely not lacking in courage here, as their players willingly threw themselves into dangerous positions when called upon. Tullio Mineo returned to play with a gashed cheek, courtesy of Gennady Dvorak
's high boot, while Marin Canjuga put his leg in the way of Muthyala's telegraphed volley later on.
It was not all one-sided in this respect, however, and Mineo became much less appreciated by the crowd, after trying to disguise a sneaky knee into Gene Filippone
, as they jostled for an incoming long ball. This sparked a spectacular drive down the left by Ang Leong Kum
, but Rinor Isufi
's rushed finish would only graze the crossbar.
One could not help but feel that one-nil was a very tenuous lead to hold at the break, despite the visitors barely threatening. This was perhaps due to the Earthquakes never appearing particularly vulnerable after conceding, with their dynamic coverage nullifying almost all of Grilled's threats while still outside their own penalty area. Their forwards for their part never stopped looking to break Grilled's high line, and there was a sense that once would be enough.
It was thus with some relief that Grilled added to their advantage soon after half-time, with Low again heavily involved. Having switched flanks for most of the game, he kept Chua Li Sze on his toes constantly, which was still not enough to prevent a breach in the 52nd. The forwards saw their chance, and Tian Yonghang
executed a practised swopover with Dvorak, that saw him with just enough time to drill a low one past Fausto Chiara.
And just in time, as it transpired. Tian's next foray saw him appear certain to bag another, and the supporters behind the goal were already cheering, when Chiara reached behind him, to push the ball aside. Earthquakes captain Ibrahim Mohd Azmil had enough presence of mind to look out for the best pass, and the ever-slippery Dietmar Dunkel evaded both Yuta and Filippone delightfully on the turn, before slipping it by Valentin Batâr
Grilled stuck to their guns, and they restored their two-goal lead six minutes later. Although their attack had been comparatively short on movement, it did have its moments, such as when Isufi left a square pass for Dvorak, who happily understood the Albanian's intentions. The return was placed just where Isufi wanted it, and he left Chiara helpless with an immediate pot to his far post.
Fausto Chiara's travails were hardly over, and there was no question that he had earned his Man of the Match award by the final whistle, given the saves that he would make. The pick of the lot was somehow not his previous stop against Tian, though, as he topped it with a blind fingertip one, after backpedalling furiously against Tian's delectable 73rd minute lob. The Grilled skipper could hardly believe his eyes, barely managing a thin smile and shake of his head.
That would be Tian's final act of the day, as he bowed out together with Gene Filippone
, for Hoàng Trung Quá
and Mohd Safri bin Mohd Kassim
. There was a poignant moment as Tian handed his longtime partner the armband, with those in attendance well aware that it could well be one of their last appearances together.
There was little time for sentimentality, as Dunkel rudely reminded all present that Batok Earthquakes were very much in it. Spanish forward Ioritz Aldabalde would seize upon Hoàng as the latter tried to push play forward, and the incoming no-nonsense cross between Hoàng's legs would be run straight into the net by the evergreen German, his sixth goal against Grilled in six meetings.
It wouldn't be enough this time, as Grilled rapidly returned to their previous routine, and Mohd Safri would demonstrate a newfound conservatism by deliberately running the clock down.