End Of The Rope
Neeraj With The Goods
The Birds booked their passage to the quarterfinals of the Sapphire Challenger Cup with a 3-1 victory over Ropelearner FC, ending the II.3 leaders' five match win streak, and inflicting only their second official defeat this season. Ropelearner head coach Milan Bakić reprised the same 5-4-1 that they had tried in their last meeting - a 2-4 Division Three defeat at The Cooking Pot two years ago - and the outcome would be barely changed.
Ropelearner had just two changes from that side, with former Chinese youth star Ye Junzheng instead of Salomon Breuker - moved on to M.A.S.H - and another former international U-20 representative in Pakistani goalkeeper Waris Jalal. As for Grilled, defender Gilbert Webb
was again relegated to the bench, while Moey Xin Seng
would have his landmark 50th cup start for Grilled acknowledged by the announcers.
There would be a cracking start, with the Birds raring to put their embarassing weekend thrashing behind them, and Moey would give Ye the run-around the first time he received ball to feet. A dream start looked on the cards, as Moey picked out Neeraj Muthyala
's anticipatory dash with exquisite timing, but Jalal was up to it with a fearless charge off his line to intercept the through ball.
Jalal's heroics were not over, as he saved a mediocre penalty from Vikram Mudaliar
, given following a ball-to-shoulder by Miklós Eszik in the box. Grilled, at least, were not overly disheartened, and their continued edge in possession would eventually work out for them in the 30th minute. Kalki Parvathaneni
's little jiggle caught Dániel Bejczi flatfooted, and the Indian livewire would surge past him to chip Jalal.
Ropelearner FC were shaken into action, and left winger Gianluca Dioguardi got something of his own back against Moey. Leaving the Grilled Number Seven on his back, Dioguardi caught the Birds defence entirely unprepared for a run, and it was Massoud Dob
's turn to come up with a wondersave. It was becoming something of a clash of egos down that flank with Moey rampaging inside next, but again Jalal's reflexes spared his team.
The equalizer would come four minutes before the end of the helf, as Ropelearner managed to craft play towards their strengths. Following an intricate pattern of passes around the edge of the Grilled area, Dániel Bejczi unleashed a mighty low drive, which was only just stopped by a sprawling Dob. The rebound was seized upon and redistributed by Gábor Gém, however, and Piotr Widzyk arrowed it in off the far post, as Hoàng Trung Quá
threw himself at the shot in vain.
Chu Xin Lee
rotated in for Moey for the second half, which began as something of a quagmire. The teams were perhaps too familiar with each other, and with the next goal likely deciding the fate of the match, nobody wanted to make a mistake - and it showed. The only attempt on goal for some half an hour would be from a marginal Grilled free-kick in the 61st minute, but Kalki wasn't given the time to set his shot.
Grilled were starting to rue their earlier penalty miss, with Ropelearner starting to gain an edge in reserve stamina, when Bernie Egan
set the game on fire with a flurry of tricky off-the-ball runs. Though they didn't come off, they set the stage for a clean break on the right, which cumulated in Florus Romijn
's strike coming off the post in the 77th minute. Not to worry, Egan had it, and while he didn't have space to take it on himself, his cute backheel to Neeraj Muthyala
led to a spectacular second goal.
Ropelearner FC were left with no time to catch their breath, as Grilled promptly shut down their uncertain advance from the restart. There was precious little leadership on display as Vikram Mudaliar
brought the ball straight up the middle, and Jean-Félix D'hoedt's attentions came too late to prevent Chan Ze Han
from being released. The resulting volley was exceptional, and despite Jalal's undoubted ability, there was only ever going to be one result: 3-1.
That was it, as Ropelearner could barely bring themselves to restart the game again, and the Birds were happy to slowly pass it between themselves for the two added minutes.