Even In The East
Grilled appeared the better value in holding Changi Genius to a two-all draw in Pasir Ris, but alas, it was just short of what they needed to overhaul the eventual league champions. A 66000-strong full house packed Changi's stadium to witness the conclusion of the two competitors' seasons, and it would be the hosts who would party after the ninety minutes.
The big news of the day was Tian Yonghang
making his first start in six matches, as the Birds saw no-one better to entrust the occasion to, than their 38 year-old all-time league top scorer. Changi, who had the luxury of an easy fixture against Quipersss last weekend, stuck with what had done them justice since the beginning. A notable absence was midfielder Herman Xu, who surely would have featured, had he not been accidentally kneed in the groin by Jace Park in the Quipersss game.
If most of the analysis had been for a cagey meeting, with so much as stake, what went on would prove that wrong very soon indeed. Seemingly having it drilled into them that attack was their best strategy - and certainly needing to score anyhow - the Birds went on the warpath immediately, which had the home team looking rattled, if not exactly subdued.
Actually, it could have gone very badly for Grilled when they lost it down the right side early on, but fortunately the outlet pass was overhit for Mathieu Lecoq. Grilled took this as a call to urgency, and they got it from Belgian left winger Florus Romijn
, who scooted past both Maxime Deschamps and Zacharias Hertl in a single burst. The collapse of their entire right defence left Changi severely exposed, and Chu Xin Lee
did the trick by taking Romijn's cross early, rather than leaving it to the arguably better-positioned Tian.
The former Grilled skipper definitely wasn't begrudging his teammate that one, and it was very nearly a dream second too, as Hoàng Trung Quá
ran through on their very next push, with Changi still reeling. The new Vietnamese hotness has already wheeling away in joy, having seen his effort go past Agustí Autet, but he hadn't counted on Ivo Selestrin catching up, and sweeping the ball off the line.
Several of the Birds immediately appealed for the goal, which they would shortly have cause to regret, as Changi pressed fervently forward - likely to avoid the issue. It went better than most of their fans dared hope, as Raymond Poon released a magnificent through pass, just out of Neeraj Muthyala
's reach, and perfectly weighted for Lecoq. It was then from one Frenchman to another, as Lecoq whipped in a searching flat cross, that Changi captain Deschamps flew onto for a sweet header.
Deschamps' goal output might have been falling off slightly with age, but he was well-capable of reminding watchers as to how much guile could count. With Grilled still wholly committed to the offensive, Changi found themselves with plenty of space to exploit when they turned it over off Moey Xin Seng
's overly-ambitious gambit, and quickly pinged it up to Deschamps once more. This time, he would show off his dribbling skills, ghosting past Hoàng, before cutting outside Gene Filippone
, and unleashing a screamer in off the crossbar.
The capacity crowd was on its feet now, and a lesser team might have wilted in this atmosphere, after having suffered two huge blows into the bargain. Luckily, Grilled were made of sterner stuff, and they carried on as before. And, their approach would be proven right, as Yuta Nakakita
partnered well with Romijn, to advance up the left side of Changi's penalty area. A neat chip back to the Belgian followed, and Romijn caught the imagination with a hooked finish, with his back to goal.
It was white-hot at Changi Genius Arena now, with everyone involved keenly aware of the importance of not backing down. The all-out pace that resulted, while clearly unsustainable, was much appreciated by the support, and would surely have led to another goal, had there not been a lengthy stoppage after a strange incident. There seemed nothing out of the ordinary when Chu Xin Lee
went up with Raymond Poon in an inconclusive aerial battle, but the Grilled forward would fall to the ground clutching his wrist, upon landing.
A circle immediately gathered around the stricken Chu, with his comrades insinuating dirty business, and the Changi players accusing him of blatant simulation. Referee Antoine Pichot didn't know what to make of it, and would conveniently come to a decision only after the replays came up - apparently, Chu had gotten his hand caught between Poon's arm and side. The yellow card that he dealt out felt harsh given that.
Grilled took their time replacing Chu, and only made Islom Davlatov
's entrance official after much deliberation, probably as he had been slated to come in for Tian Yonghang
. There was good reason for that, with Tian's legs clearly no longer up to the rigours of a full professional match, and although he had the intelligence to ration his energy, it nevertheless put him at a disadvantage against defenders in their prime.
The slow and contemplative approach that so many had predicted would kick in after this unscheduled stoppage, and the remainder of the first half became as dull as the opening had been explosive. Physical constraints probably came into it too, as Davlatov tried a few breakaways, supported by the seemingly-tireless Romijn, only to discover that his support was trailing way behind.
The Birds could reasonably have claimd to have edged the half slightly, and with another goal still required, many were expecting Kalki Parvathaneni
to get injected into the game at some point. Djan Bacelar
had other thoughts, however, and his substitution for the next half would be Yuki Irie
alone, coming in for Gene Filippone
at the back.
Truth to tell, it wasn't even a poor one, as a fresh Yuki introduced some pretty good attacking ideas, as he melded effortlessly into the midfield system as and when it made sense. The proceedings were shifting towards Grilled's direction, as Changi slid into a more defensive posture, and Mohammad Ramli Saliman
found several telling passes to the forward line. Thanks mostly to Ivo Selestrin's mopping-up, however, nothing came of those.
Recognizing the threat, Changi Genius head coach Zlatko Rendulić egged his men to be more proactive, in particular giving Chua Yau How detailed new instructions during a lull in play. This saw them aim to keep the ball in Grilled's half as much as possible, with winning corners a secondary objective. Deschamps proved fairly effective at the latter, at least until Romijn began double-teaming him in earnest.
True openings were getting few and far between as Changi's new tactics sunk in, though, with Edy Goldschmidt also immersing himself into the holding-up spirit. It would take a moment of brillance to turn this one around, and there were assuredly shades of that in the 69th minute, as Moey Xin Seng
created a yard of room for himself with a calculated half-step, before thrashing a volley straight at the top corner. The home fans behind the goal held their collective breath, at least until Agustí Autet met it with a one-handed save.
If Moey was disheartened at not having struck the league-winner, he didn't show it, and his efforts contributed to an even better chance three minutes later. Scrambling the ball off a thinking Tomáš Mamrák, he poked it wide to Cyril Künzler
, who thus finally had the breach that he needed. His curling cross was true, evading a hustling Selestrin and falling right for the waiting Tian Yonghang
... only for Tian to blast it way overhead.
This was a real downer for Tian in particular, and the rest of the Grilled team also, as they recognized as one that they were unlikely to get a second chance as good as this one. And indeed, they didn't, with Changi gradually constricting the remaining life out of the game, to secure their fifth Division Three title.